Sri Lanka: The Art of National Dialogue and Reconciliation

Sri Lanka: The Art of National Dialogue and Reconciliation
by Amy Fagin
Opening Addresses: Colombo, Sri Lanka

“And seeing him sit day after day, sinister, silent, twisting his rope to a future purpose of evilness…I sense the charred-wood smell again…of charred-wood-midnight-fear…knowing that nothing is impossible…that nothing is impossible…that anything is possible…that there is no safety in words or houses…that boundaries are theoretic…and love is relative to the choice before you…”

Anne Ranasinghe, Holocaust Kindertransport survivor married Sri Lankan Dr. Don Abraham Ranasinghe in 1949.  Anne received several literary awards, including one in 2007, The Sri Lanka State Literary Award for lifetime achievement.

The opening ceremony address to the WINGS International Conference on Arts and Reconciliation, November 7th – 9th, 2016 was reserved for this distinguished European born author whose life experience embodies the universal responsibility to understand and foster creative and collective solutions to mass atrocity.

In the words of the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) a summary of the conflict in Sri Lanka reads as such:  “In 1983, ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese (mainly Buddhist) population and the Tamil (mainly Hindu) minority in the North led to a devastating civil war.  For over a quarter of a century, the Sri Lankan government clashed with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers, who fought in pursuit of an independent state.  The war ended on 19 May 2009, following a major government offensive that forced the rebels to surrender. Though precise figures on the death toll are difficult to tally, the United Nations suggests between 80,000 and 100,000 casualties. Such figures remain hotly contested.  During this time, different actors attempted to facilitate negotiations and establish ceasefires. Nevertheless, all efforts to create sustainable peace failed.”

Also according to this report in the aftermath of the violence and until 2013 efforts and initiatives to insure the safety of civilians, and post conflict accountability coming from the international community were undertaken by the UN Security Council; the UN Human Rights Council, the European Union and a variety of Civil Society agencies including the Global Center for R2P.  While the Sri Lankan government created a national plan of action it was considered inadequate in addressing the allegations of violations of international law.

By most international accounts the politics of accountability in Sri Lanka have been deeply contentious, but the election of Maithripala Sirisena in January of 2015 has heralded a new political era.  Campaign promises by this new government include commitments to restoring democratic institutions, mandates for reconciliation, accountability and transitional justice processes all of which must counterbalance overwhelming Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.  The challenges to incorporate legal, economic and cultural measures toward truth, justice and memory are multi-faceted.

The partners launching the WINGS cultural festivals and academic conference include national agencies, international NGO’s and EU partnerships.  Citizen empowerment as the driving agent of the inaugural nation-wide festival bridge foundations in “unity and mutual understanding”.   Integrated, colorful and enthusiastic sharing of traditions and opportunities for citizen diplomacy with visual and performance arts, educational events for all were organized with a distinctive air of gala and national pride.
Traditional Dance Performers

I had the distinguished honor of participating as a delegate at the 3 day conference held in the capital city of Colombo from the 7th through the 9th of November, 2016.

The themes of international conference focused on the Art of Dissent, the Art of Connecting and the Art of Witness and provided a sturdy manifesto with which to engage academic and arts expression and dialogue to better understand the challenges of post conflict reconciliation processes and case studies domestically and internationally.

The dignity and enthusiasm of and for this international collaborative event was palpable.  Respect for the complexity of the issues at stake, and strategies for moving toward reconciliation for all Sri Lankans were directed effectively with the tripartite mission of Connecting, Dissent and Witness.  Inclusiveness of all members of society was strategic and group focused.  Tackling the sensitive issues of post conflict reconciliation can be fraught with competing claims of truth and memory.  Focusing on the Art of Reconciliation allows for personal interpretation and reflection of subjective and individual experiences while adopting a collective directive.  The ambiance was set tactically and tactfully toward a unified country with citizenry establishing control of democratic processes.  Love and devotion to the singularity of this island nation was unabashedly present.  All too often the emotional palate of an academic conference is unwelcomed, poorly understood and haphazardly incorporated into conference themes.  By framing the presentations, discussions and atmosphere specifically as an expression of art, the character of the dialogue assumed an ambiance of collective observation, respectful listening, collaborative and creative problem solving.

Presentations included a wide array of domestic approaches and international case studies in political and cultural dialogue, peacebuilding and the unique challenges that various post conflict countries face in transforming violence into truth, memory and justice.

Of course I was not able to attend every presentation, and like all conferences, competing interests means that some of the fascinating presentations I was not able to observe.  There was one presentation, however, that I was not about to miss and proved to be a divinely delectable approach to the art of reconciliation through “Culinary Diplomacy”.
Professor Asoka De Zoysa

The art of cooking as a “framework for exploring gastronomic culture and practice across the ethnicities of the island, including regional, spatial, and familial influences over family culinary practices in Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic traditions” delivered a fascinating and truly delightful window into the everyday and ceremonial  realms of cooking and eating  around the island.

The nation is undoubtedly in the throes of wrestling with legacies of deep and painful divisions, economic and political inequalities and mass atrocity crimes that cannot be patched over with denial based unification.  Conversations are delicate and nascent with regards to comprehensive approaches to reconciliation that will satisfy the tripartite missions of truth, justice and memory.  It is absolutely clear however that Sri Lankan citizens are taking these matters into their own hands and have voted firmly for a future with democratic principles as a foundation for moving forward.  I was privilege to witness this artfully organized conference which has demonstrated to the world the quintessential splendor of this island nation and a vision of a future that all Sri Lankans can share in.
Author and Participants:  Culmination of Conference