Because individuality is different from national identity
Reconciliation is not a mathematical activity
The Catamaran in conversation with social activist and writer Sarmila Seyed
THE CATAMARAN: Reconciliation is viewed in relation to politics. How is it possible to focus on reconciliation via literary activities?
Reconciliation in contemporary times has become a multinational business venture that accepts or denies past pogroms and genocides when it comes to free trade and open economic policy. Governments and bureaucracies only deal with the mythical theme of ‘reconciliation’ today. In a country like Sri Lanka, where there are some who consider it a joke and ridicule you when you talk of reconciliation.
The reconciliation we talk about is not a cozy harmony to the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. What we need to talk about is harmony that protects all of us from self-destruction. We need to free ourselves from the three dimensions of the war – feelings, confusion and doubt – that have been sown in the community. This process can only be done through effective creation, at least for the sake of preserving the human qualities we possess. Creativity is an excellent medium to understand and illustrate different cultural and traditional values. Translating these into reading materials will lead to discussion that creates better understanding among communities.
THE CATAMARAN: What activities have you undertaken for this purpose?
We started a project called ‘Reconciliation Through Creations’ two years ago. We have a forum for discussions with different artists whose works are in different languages. A ‘We Translate’ forum has also been created by some of our media friends, recently. They are engaged in translating literary texts. This is more promising.
THE CATAMARAN: To what extent has reconciliation been successful & what comes next?
This is a complicated question. As always we expect quick answers. This is why good work being carried out with the intention of common good often fails. This expectation can impose a certain kind of mechanical character in the process. For me, success or failure in such activities cannot be the result. The reconciliation process is not a mathematical process. There is no immediate answer here. Such activity is extensible. This is an infinite process. Some of the domestic reconciliation programmes are being used by some forces for geopolitical gains and the good effects of the reconciliation process disappear. The reconciliation process must be carried out within the minority communities and within the majority community alike.
THE CATAMARAN: What role can women play in the reconciliation process?
Women were an important part of our traditional family structure. Sri Lankan society, although distinct on ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds, had commonalities of a matriarchal society. In traditional families, the woman would be the deciding factor when it came to marriage, family economy, determining heirs to lands and also in conflict situations. Through this, women contributed much and were discharged important responsibilities, such as keeping family wealth protected and recording family history etc. Family disputes were resolved by them through consultation. Unfortunately, this is not the case today. Sri Lankan society has been transformed into a male-dominated, repressive society with the worst patriarchal ideas. Women continue to be excluded from formal discussions in the family and community. In contemporary times women are even denied the right to decide their own future. Worldwide, the percentage of women participating in peace talks and reconciliation continues to be low. Both men and politicians dominate the national discourse and conflict-affected ethnicities. Despite these challenges, women continue to show their responsibilities for peace, security, justice and reconciliation.
THE CATAMARAN: Minor issues become a major issue in our society due to misunderstandings between the communities. How can we fix this?
Misunderstanding is not a natural feeling. It was artificially created and imposed on people. This is because politicians who clamor to rule the country since independence have made tactical propaganda to divide people on ethnic and religious lines so that it is easier to achieve their political goals. Party politics and ethnic-centric politics to this day prevent Sri Lankans to think of themselves as Sri Lankans. The emergence of new progressive political thinking and the broader people’s programme based on progressive ideologies such as solidarity and harmony may change this situation over time.
THE CATAMARAN: In our current political climate, Tamils and Muslims have taken a position that is opposite to the majority. As a social activist, what is your opinion on the result of these two stances?
The stand taken by Tamils and Muslims in the election cannot be completely wrong. In the presidential election, the South’s decision was victorious. Thus, a president was elected by the country’s Sinhala Buddhist majority. Nevertheless, the candidate the minority Tamils and Muslims and less number of the Sinhalese voted for was not the elected president, but this does not mean that they have politically failed. The election can be seen as an opportunity for Tamils and Muslims to show their political solidarity. Muslims have acted against the separation of the country. They suffered the most by the LTTE. However, they did not support the side that defeated the LTTE either. Tamils have expressed their attitude towards the Sinhala majority that defeated them militarily. Most Muslims were united with this sentiment of the Tamils. This has shown the solidarity of the Tamil-speaking people of the North and East to the international community.
However, minority communities have to deal with the future pressures and impending dangers that may come along with being completely polarized from the Sinhalese community. They must understand that individuality is different from national identity.
The president says that he sees the country as a single entity. He claims to promote development and security, while maintaining alliances with international powers and not getting engaged with their political rivalries. Anyhow, the measures he has taken have posed a serious challenge to human rights activists and NGOs. It is disturbing to note that civil society organizations are brought under the Ministry of Defense. In this situation, new strategies are needed to advance social activities. However, a fully-fledged government will be formed only after the next parliamentary election. Only then can we have a clear vision of what they have in their basket.