Tuesday, August 23, 2016

On reconciliation and 'reconciliation'

Reconciliation implies a two-way process, ideally aiming at equality for both sides to a conflict. Accountability can only be a part of it if it’s scripted in properly and not, as it’s wont to be today, pushed forward as part and parcel of a larger, insidious agenda. There are degrees of equality with each side to a conflict blaming the other. Once you factor in accountability, more often than not, what prevails is something that goes by the name of reconciliation but which does not coalesce into the genuine, cohesive movement it should be.

This week’s column is on reconciliation and its discontents. More specifically, it is an assessment of current realities, the myths associated with it, and various suggestions mooted by parties and outfits that are seen as pandering to ideologies (some positive, others not so). To start off however, two questions are compelled: what is reconciliation and, more to the point, what is the variant thereof that’s being championed in Sri Lanka today?

Why and whither reconciliation?

Reconciliation is rooted in ethics, equality, and in the longer term, equity. It is premised on acceptance, not denial: on forgiveness, not retribution. As opposed to criminal law its end isn’t punishment but an affirmation that the past happened and more significantly, happened in a way which no citizen can forget. Logically then, it ought to appraise what made the past and how, from the mistakes of that past, we can formulate a common blueprint for the future. There is mutuality here, which stops short of dishing out blame and is content with voluntary acceptance of responsibility for errors of commission and omission.

In the short term, reconciliation is about equality: hence the need for mutuality. In the longer term though, equality is meaningless without giving due weight to the discrepancy between each party’s contribution to the conflict. Task Forces and Commissions don’t hold water unless they account for such a discrepancy between the two parties in terms of errors committed, whether they are made consciously or through omission being largely irrelevant.

That is why, when equity supersedes equality (as was seen in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the sixties), we see those who contend for positive discrimination and privilege minority aspirations over the majority for the reason that, at any given point in time, the numerical (ethnic, religious, or social) minority is by default subject to the whims, fancies, and abuses of the numerical majority. Equity begins with equality, however, and I personally believe that the problem with Sri Lanka’s efforts at reconciliation is a basic misunderstanding of both these terms and their relevance by those who’ve authored the entire process.

That misunderstanding, by the way, can be traced to another: the fact that many if not most of those championing reconciliation today have focused on the long term. Not the short term. Equity and equality, let’s not forget, are mutually inclusive. Not exclusive.

The debate between the nationalists who wish to scuttle reconciliation (or some form of multiethnic dialogue) and the cosmopolitans who wish to go ahead with it, in a large sense at least therefore, can be reduced (at the cost of simplification) to the debate between those who want preferential treatment for the majority and those who want preferential treatment for the minority. In the end neither extreme can or should be allowed to win, if at all because both contort the spirit of what a multiethnic dialogue should entail.

Terrorism, ethnic fratricide, and conflict resolution

About seven years ago, at a public seminar on the ethnic conflict (which hadn’t ended by then), Shiral Lakthilaka and Victor Ivan debated on the (de)merits of the war. Victor was for continuing it, Shiral was not. The debate, attended to by the likes of Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe and scripted to appeal to both sides of the political divide, was relevant (for me at least) because of a point Victor made: that even if the Sri Lankan government didn’t give anything to the Tamils in the country, that still would be preferable to the LTTE holding sway in the North and East.

That point was strong, even radical, but to me it made clear everything wrong with how those for reconciliation at all costs understood the war. Those who self-righteously distinguished between Tamils and terrorists, for some tragic reason, failed to distinguish between terrorism and ethnic conflicts. And as Dayan Jayatilleka observes in his book Long War, Cold Peace, it was meaningless to accord parity of status to the government and the LTTE without first considering the chasm between a liberation movement and a fanatical organisation. The LTTE was not a liberation movement, it was a fanatical organisation. Logically therefore, a war against it wasn’t only just, it was necessary.

The truth then is that there was a war. The truth is that there were casualties. No government can be faulted for inflicting casualties in a situation where the other side was using civilians as human shields. Let’s not forget, after all, that what transpired in 2009 wasn’t merely a triumph of an Army funded by a State in debt over an organisation receiving (as Shiral Lakthilaka noted in that aforementioned debate) as much as 600 million dollars through its outfits in Europe: it was, as this article will explicate later on, a vindication of the necessity of ending war to compel peace. Those who inflate figures, consequently, are as prejudiced towards insidious outcomes as those who downplay them.

This column is not concerned with the war and its ramifications, but at a time when the “international community” continues to play with numbers (ranging from the 7,021 quoted by the United Nations to the 30,000 quoted by the myopic and fact-challenged Darusman Report to the 147,000 quoted by Frances Harrison, who ironically narrated a documentary in 2002 showing to the world the fascist proclivities of the LTTE), it is necessary to separate myth from fact, because myths (prime among them, the traditional homelands claim of communalist Tamil politicians) help neither reconciliation nor communal development.

Facts, factoids, and citizenship anomalies

Malinda Seneviratne, in his submissions to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), argued that conceding ground to the traditional homelands thesis via the 13th Amendment and the devolution packages proposed by successive governments did little by way of easing another more pressing concern, citizenship anomalies. He contended that while devolution made little to no sense politically or economically, it served as a backdrop for the various myths and chauvinist politics of the North and what’s more, was erroneously associated with problems related to citizenry.

Seneviratne represents the moderately nationalist opinion, the extreme manifestation of which rebels against any attempt at multiethnic dialogue (ostensibly because it’s felt to encroach on the “majority”). The moderate segment is conscious of ethnic identity and is also cosmopolitan. Those who subscribe to it are wary of myths paraded as history but at the same time concede that this in itself shouldn’t marginalise the need for reconciliation. It makes sense, at one level at least, to privilege this segment, if at all because the assumptions made by either extreme of the spectrum tend to fudge the crux of the issue.

And what is that crux? Simply, that reconciliation must be based on reason and history, not myths propagated by chauvinists. All in all, the government of the country, which received the democratic mandate from the people, were readier to compromise in the face of negotiations with the LTTE. The LTTE, on the other hand, not only arrogantly refused to compromise but sought to enforce its own terms and conditions while REDRAFTING the negotiation, akin to having a cake and eating it.

That is why, at a time when the politics of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) seem to be dictated purely by its constituency and when it’s perceived as not being completely for an all-encompassing nationality imperative in a transition from “just war to just peace” (Dayan Jayatilleka, Long War, Cold Peace), we must proceed with caution. The problem however is that those who want to go ahead with reconciliation at all costs forget the antics of the Northern Provincial Council and Chief Minister Wigneswaran, but are quick to jump on the allegedly racist rhetoric of non-Tamil politicos, particularly from the (unofficial) Joint Opposition.

Addressing the majority in the room

I mentioned before that reconciliation doesn’t make sense if we address the long term before the short term. In other words, without addressing equality there’s nothing much to be achieved by opting for equity. There are reasons for this, obviously.

First and foremost, it’s pointless talking about constitutional reforms and affirming an all-encompassing identity if the views of the majority are considered secondary or at best, marginalised. Sri Lanka arguably had the best opportunity to embrace such an identity upon independence. The problem however was that politicians pandered to an elitist ideology which virtually blanketed and ignored the aspirations of the majority, aspirations denied so much that when they were affirmed by successive governments after 1956, they vented out frustration is unseemly, violent ways, mainly against the minority.

On that basis, would it make sense to opt for equality? It would. And for one reason: mechanisms which do not account for the concerns of the majority and rubbish them for the sake of privileging the minority can and will prove fruitless if, in the longer term, the majority feels threatened and intruded on. Addressing the majority in the room and taking into account their grievances (in particular, the manifest tendency of politicians to pander to federalism, devolution, and extrapolated versions of the 13th Amendment) aren’t feel-good cosmetics but rather prerequisites to meaningful reconciliation.

This isn’t all, however.

Negotiations can culminate successfully only if equality gives way to equity skewed in favour of historically marginalised communities. On that count, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa didn’t turn out to be the success it was cut out to be. As various commentators have noted, that it began with the laudable objective of remembering and forgiving the past didn’t prevent it from deteriorating to a point where crimes committed by the white community were swept aside, a classic case of substituting absolution for forgiveness. Those who seek to emulate the South African model must clearly do so factoring in these contextual differences.

Marginalising the majority and twiddling thumbs

There’s a saying that’s tossed around these days: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” The nationalists will, as always, oppose attempts at reconciliation if it is felt to encroach on the majority. Such opposition is at best based on illusion and self-defeating. What’s even worse is that those opposed to majoritarian dominance have become myopic in the face of minoritarian communalism, especially when that communalism asserts itself against other ethnicities.

The recent clash at Jaffna University and the silence it wrested from the government, not to mention the manifest silence from civil society and various Embassies affiliated to the West, indicates quite clearly that progress can’t be obtained through denial. Denial, after all, was what blinded the majority into believing that physical development was a substitute for human development, that the minority could be coerced or appeased into submission through infrastructural projects in the North and East. Blinding oneself to majority aspirations is as bad, if not worse: in a context where the majority feel their grievances are unheard, rubbishing or ignoring them will merely take away from any reconciliation mechanism.

So yes, reconciliation is broke. Consequently, fix it one must.

One final point. At the end of the day, it’s difficult to prescribe exactly how the minority (predominantly Tamil and Muslim) should behave in the face of reconciliation. The premise must obviously be that they suffered, that they have suffered, and that they will suffer unless meaningful reforms are carried out.

On the other hand, I’m not too sure how those reforms should be articulated. I can think of two ways, affirmed by two thinkers.

The first, W. E. B. du Bois, who co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), argued for equality through education. Complete freedom and nothing short of that was what he desired, buttressed by his contention that only education, in particular the liberal arts curriculum drawn up and studied by the Whites, could emancipate his race.

The second, Booker T. Washington, the darling of Republicans who spout rhetoric on race relations in the US, saw things differently. He argued that self-employment, was the way forward for the black community. He opposed what he thought was the hollowness in du Bois’ method, and went as far as to sanction the exploitation and disenfranchisement of his race in return for economic development.

In the great debate between these two, I believe du Bois won. Rightly. Now’s not the time to delve into perspectives on minority emancipation (I leave that for a later column), but suffice it to say this: in the roadmap for reconciliation in this country, we must start at acceptance, move on to forgiveness, and declare a blueprint in which minorities are free not just in some places but everywhere. For better or worse, the roadmap must begin with equality, for only then can we hope for equity.

Written for: Ceylon Today, August 23 2016