Reconciliation after Terrorism: The Sri Lankan Experience

Asanga Abeygoonasekera
and Rohan Gunaratna


Policy and decision-makers worldwide are grappled with managing ethnic and religious tensions that breakout into conflicts. Today, ethnic and religious violence constitute the predominant form of global conflict. About 70-80% of conflicts are driven by destructive ideologies that seek to divide and legitimize violence against ethnic and religious communities. Long after armed conflicts end, the virulent ideologies endure.

In countries where conflicts have ended, there is a persistent risk that the very same ideologies that seeded and drove the conflict will return with a vengeance. It is like a cancer. To prevent resurgence, governments and their partners must invest in reducing the potential for conflict. The strategy is to win the hearts and the minds of the combatants and build bridges of friendship between the affected communities. Without reaching out to the combatants, the most affected of the community, the potential for conflict will loom.

The Context

One of the most beautiful countries in the world, Sri Lanka, fought the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for three decades. The LTTE is a terrorist and an insurgent group designated, proscribed and banned by the US, Canada, UK, EU, India, and Malaysia. Although the LTTE was militarily defeated, the thinking of the population that was politicized, radicalized and mobilized by the LTTE needs to be mainstreamed. The LTTE strategy was to radicalize the Tamil community en-masse. The LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran remarked: “The LTTE are no different from the people. The LTTE is a people’s movement.

The Tigers are the people, the people are the Tigers.”[1]A core of cadres in the Political Wing’s media organs and in the International Secretariat crafted propaganda to support the LTTE’s mass radicalization agenda. Today, the strategy of the government and its partners is to reach out to the population by engaging them in three different areas: humanitarian assistance, socio-economic development and political engagement.

To create an environment conducive for sustaining political violence, especially terrorism, the LTTE invested in building and maintaining underground and aboveground structures. The LTTE’s fighting formations and cells were dismantled in 2009, but the LTTE ideology, remnant factions and extensions survive. Although the bulk of the Tamil community has moved away from the LTTE ideology and activities, a narrow segment of the community and its physical infrastructures overseas are intact. Those overseas are not within the immediate reach of the Sri Lankan criminal justice and prisons system. Although the operational threat has been dismantled, the LTTE ideology of separatism, hatred and suspicion still lingers. In addition to these domestic challenges, Sri Lanka faces many challenges overseas.

After the LTTE was dismantled domestically, to survive and continue the fight in the international arena, the LTTE’s penultimate leadership exploits the same infrastructure. By using funds and votes, the LTTE front organizations in the West present a distorted picture of Sri Lanka. They include Tamils for Obama in Washington D.C., the Transnational Government for Tamil Eelam in New York and the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) in the UK and its affiliates worldwide.

GTF and one faction of TGTE work with successor to Prabhakaran, Perimpanayagam Sivaparan alias Nediyawan who lives in Oslo, Norway. The LTTE second and third tier leaders operating in the West are attempting to create unrest and revive terrorism in Sri Lanka. They seek to radicalize Tamil youth from among a million strong Tamil diaspora living worldwide. Furthermore, LTTE cells based in North America, Europe, India, and Australia are seeking to hamper both reconciliation and economic development in Sri Lanka.


In the terminal phase of the government’s fight with the LTTE, the LTTE attempted to engineer a humanitarian catastrophe. The LTTE was aware that the Western community can be prompted to intervene by creating such a crisis. As the security forces advanced, the LTTE forced the Tamil civilians to move with them towards a No-Fire Zone declared for civilians by the government. The LTTE leadership took nearly 300,000 ordinary Tamils as hostages in a government declared No-Fire Zone in early 2009.

To avert a humanitarian catastrophe, the security forces breached the LTTE defences and rescued the civilian population. While the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) were placed in welfare centres, the LTTE cadres were placed in rehabilitation centres. As the LTTE had a scorched earth policy, the government had to rebuild the areas hitherto dominated by the LTTE. As their areas of inhabitation of the civilians were seeded with LTTE mines, the government with their partners had to demine the areas and render them safe for human habitation. Furthermore, the government had to assist the civilians to rebuild their homes as the LTTE had instructed the civilians to remove the roofs and doors of their homes. As the LTTE infiltrated the civilian population, the government had to screen the civilians and separate the LTTE cadres for rehabilitation.

To unite the Sri Lankan social fabric, polarized by three decades of conflict, the government in partnership with the private sector and community organizations engaged in a series of programmes aimed at reconciling the hearts of the affected communities. Working with partners, the government focused on resettlement of the rehabilitation of the insurgents and terrorists, and reconciliation initiatives to reach out to the ordinary population. Of the civilians displaced during the final stages of the fight against the LTTE, approximately 265,000 have been resettled within two and a half years. As per the Ministry of Resettlement, only 6,031 remain in the resettlement camps as at May 08, 2012. Of 12,000 insurgents and terrorists arrested or surrendered, 11,500 have been rehabilitated and reintegrated to society.

Today, there is unprecedented economic development in the north with the economy of Jaffna growing at 22%, compared to 7% for the rest of the country. At the same time however, the government is facing significant challenges in its engagement with the Tamil political parties. Despite the historical baggage, many Tamil politicians belonging to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), including even those who empathised with the LTTE, wish to live in harmony. With the LTTE cutting off the Tamil political leadership tree, there is a need to groom mainstream Tamil politicians, especially young and up-coming leaders willing to serve all communities.

Resettlement of the Conflict-Affected

Under humanitarian assistance, the Sri Lankan government’s Ministry of Resettlement spearheaded the resettlement of the IDPs. The reintegrated LTTE commander of the East,Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan, a former child combatant, was appointed the Deputy Minister of Resettlement. Known as Karuna, he broke away from the LTTE and joined the ruling partyas Vice President of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The ministry concentrated in providing shelter grants, cooked meals, dry rations (for six months or more), water, sanitation, education and health facilities. The ministry also created an enabling environment by facilitating, monitoring and providing regulatory guidelines for long-term development programmes and projects. To meet the needs for socio-economic recovery in the affected areas, the ministry invested in creating sustainable livelihood opportunities for affected families and improving infrastructure facilities. They included water supply and sanitation, access roads networks, electricity supply, health centres, rehabilitation of tanks and canals to provide irrigated water for farming, create an opportunity for youth to develop entrepreneurships and vocational skills and setting up the economic zones and industrial parks, etc. Fisheries and livestock sectors were given priority.

Ministry of Resettlement also constructed new permanent houses for displaced persons. An ongoing project, the Ministry also paid special attention to initiate grassroots level participatory development programmes. Plans were launched to establish Millennium Development Goals model villages with active participation of affected communities and other stakeholders in order to achieve the all Millennium Development Goals in the target villages by the year 2015.

Considered development partners, IDPs are contributing to the economic recovery. Utilization of information and communication technology immensely assisted in the Ministry’s planning and coordination. The strengthening of the network facilities benefitted the local population.

Rehabilitation of LTTE Cadres

The first step in the national reconciliation process was the resettlement of the displaced civilians and the rehabilitation of former LTTE cadres. Of the 12,000 former members of the LTTE that underwent rehabilitation, 11,500 were resettled. The Sri Lankan rehabilitation programme had six key components: (1) religious and spiritual rehabilitation (2) educational rehabilitation (3) vocational rehabilitation (4) social and family rehabilitation (5) recreational rehabilitation and (6) psychological rehabilitation.

Initially, it was not very clear how the Sri Lankan government would deal with LTTE cadres that had massacred civilians and bombed public places, attacked law enforcement officers and the military, and assassinated political leaders and government officials. Instead of taking the beaten path of retributive justice of prosecuting the LTTE cadres, the government invested in a strategy of restorative justice, where former LTTE cadres were rehabilitated and released. Imbibed by a culture shaped by ‘loving-kindness’(metta), no Sri Lankan objected to giving the former LTTE cadres a second chance in life. Even though some of the LTTE cadres were involved in killings in the past, the response of the Sri Lankan government and the public at large was to bring them back to mainstream life. Of the former Tamil Tigers rehabilitated and reintegrated in to the society, none have returned to violence.

Under religious and spiritual rehabilitation, the beneficiaries were given opportunities to reflect. They listened to sermons, read religious books and meditated. Under educational rehabilitation, the beneficiaries were given opportunity for education. Only about 60% of them had studied up to the Ordinary Level examination. Many were illiterate. The end of the conflict provided these misguided men and women golden opportunities to study and transform into productive citizens. In many ways, these rehabilitation centres became learning institutions.

Of the 12,000 Tamil Tigers, about 500 were children below 18 years of age. The Sri Lankan government gave them opportunities in education. Except those who opted for vocational training, almost all were admitted to the Hindu College in Ratmalana, a prestigious school near Colombo. A few children also enrolled for university education. Some of them have even entered the Medical schools in universities. Under the vocational training programme, the private sector played a crucial role in providing opportunities to the beneficiaries to develop new skills. Under social and family rehabilitation, contact with family members, including visits, became frequent. Under recreational rehabilitation, the beneficiaries played and learned sports. They played in mixed teams with members from different ethnicities which groomed new friendships. Under psychological rehabilitation, the beneficiaries were engaged in the creative arts and in mentorship programmes. Many important personalities from the government, the private sector, the recreational sector, and the media came and addressed the beneficiaries. These role models from their own ethnic and religious communities gave them hope. The low-cost rehabilitation programmes run by the Sri Lankan military was supported by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), UNICEF and a number of Western and other governments.

Reconciliation Partners

After defeating the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government launched a multifaceted reconciliation enterprise. Spearheading the initiatives are the National Reconciliation Unit at the Office of the Reconciliation Adviser to the President, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, and several other bodies. Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, M.P. and former Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), who was also Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, was appointed as Adviser on Reconciliation to the President[2]. There are over a hundred events in reconciliation spearheaded by the National Reconciliation Unit.

Reconciliation is a part of the mandate of the Kadirgamar Institute named in honour of the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, a former Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka who was assassinated by the LTTE on 12 August, 2005. A much loved Sri Lankan Tamil, Mr. Kadirgamar’s vision was for all communities of Sri Lanka to live in dignity as equals. The Kadirgamar Institute launched a series of events to engage the diverse sectors of the society to promote reconciliation[3]. The institute created clusters in: (1) business, (2) education, (3) higher education, (4) media, (5) religion, (6) community, (7) youth, (8) diasporas, (9) women, (10) sports, (11) political parties, (12) security forces, (13) rehabilitation, (14) unions, (15) ICT, (16) NGOs and (17) art and culture.

On 24 November, 2011, the Kadirgamar Institute convened its Inaugural National Conference on Reconciliation. This was followed by national conferences for reconciliation on specialist themes. For instance, the National Conference on the Role of the Business Community in Reconciliation held on 26 February, 2012 brought together key business leaders who have invested or have contemplated investing in the North and the East. The Kadirgamar Institute also hosted a National Conference on the Role of Education in Reconciliation on 13 March, 2012 where several principals of schools including those that had forged exchange programmes between the north and the south participated; they included Sister Canice Fernando, former Principal of Holy Family Convent, Mr. Javed Yusuf, former principal of Zahira College and Mrs. Nirmalee Wickremasinghe, the Principal of Ladies College – who has been a role model in bringing children of diverse ethnic and religious communities together.

The conference shared efforts of these model schools with others that did not have exchange programmes. The progress made so far should be consolidated and the efforts sustained, especially by introducing bilingual teaching opportunities and exchange programmes. A live webcast, including in Tamil, created an opportunity for those outside the conference venue to participate in the conference.

The Kadirgamar Institute is planning a National Conference on the Role of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Reconciliation and a National Conference on the Role of the Media in Reconciliation in June 2012. With the National Conference on the Role of the Youth in Reconciliation, the strategy will be to strengthen the existing and growing partnership between the youth of the north and the south. With the National Conference on the Role of the Diaspora in Reconciliation, the strategy will be to engage the diasporas and migrant communities. With the National Conference on the Role of the Arts and Culture in Reconciliation, the strategy will be to engage the public through song, dance, puppetry, and music for harmonious living among the different communities. The arts have mesmerized people across ethnic and religious divides for centuries. After years of conflict, these platforms can be harnessed to bring people of diverse communities together.

There are several NGOs, many with Sri Lankan and foreign assistance, which engage in reconciliation. The Foundation of Goodness, for instance, has a project known as the North Empowerment Project. While the foundation empowered 18,000 families in the north during the last 18 months to empower 6,000 families, a new project consists of a Learning and Empowerment Institute as well as a new school for both primary and secondary education. The project seeks to provide facilities and services to meet the needs of rural communities and help bridge the gap between these areas and the rest of the country.

Serving 50,000 beneficiaries a year, the project is expected to cater to the healthcare, educational, business development, sports and empowerment needs of the local population through programmes of community development, inter-cultural activities and skills exchange. [4]

Working with the Foundation of Goodness trustees, Muttiah Muralidaran and Kumar Sangakkara along with Mahela Jayawardena, its Chief, Kushil Gunasekera, is augmenting its first “Murali Cup”in July 2011. To promote goodwill in collaboration with the International Cricket Council (ICC), the foundation is organizing the Murali Cup across the North in five locations. Named in honour of Muttiah Muralitharan, who is a champion of reconciliation and who is rated the greatest Test match bowler ever, the event is scheduled to take place in Vavuniya (Central College), Mankulam (Mankulam Maha Vidyalam), Oddusudan (Oddusudan Maha Vidyalam), Kilinochchi (Kilinochchi Central College) and Jaffna (St. Patrick’s College).

There are also a number of International Organizations working closely with the government, the private sector and the NGOs to strengthen existing and emerging reconciliation initiatives. The International Organization of Migration (IOM) in coordination with other humanitarian agencies assisted the Government both in IDP resettlement and LTTE cadre rehabilitation. Trusted by the government, IOM had access to IDP welfare and rehabilitation centres at any given time. The government was reluctant to trust ICRC and a few other international organizations due to infiltration of their staff by LTTE intelligence wing operatives. Operating in Sri Lanka since 2003, IOM played a decisive role in providing “humanitarian needs generated during the emergency through the provision of emergency shelters, water, sanitation and hygiene support, health support, camp care and maintenance, transport and logistics services, donation of demining equipment and a technical enhancement of registration capacity”.[5]With funding from international donors, IOM’s interventions focus on assisting the livelihood of the resettled populations and the reintegration of LTTE cadres. IOM received funding from AUSAID, USAID, DIAC, OFDA, CERF, EU, Dutch and Norwegian governments. With a strong field presence in Ampara, Batticaloa, Jaffna, Killinochchi and Vavuniya, IOM’s timely support won admiration by Sri Lankans.

There were several hundred private companies that supported the reconciliation efforts. For instance, the respected Sri Lankan business leader Mr. D. Eassuwaren worked closely with the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation.[6]Eswaran Brothers financially supported 52 former LTTE cadres in rehabilitation to get married. Eswaran Brothers provided the women with sarees, the men with their traditional garments, and substantial cash gifts. A wonderful celebration was held to mark this event with Mr. Vivek Oberoi, an Indian artiste performing for the participants. Mr. Eassuwaren has now started a series of enterprises to support the beneficiaries – the former members of LTTE – to fully reintegrate into society. They have embarked on certain enterprises i.e. the making of incense sticks (‘handunkuru’) that would bring them a livelihood.

Champions of Reconciliation

The daughter of a former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Singapore, Ms. Sharmila Gunasingham is an accomplished exponent of classical Indian dance;[7]and despite the demands of corporate life as a lawyer, she choreographed “Harmony”[8], held at the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre in Colombo on 28 February, 2012. Harmony created a major impact in Sri Lanka, with significant press coverage and distinguished guests flying in from all over the world.[9]Organized by GR Visions Singapore, “Harmony”attracted among the VIPs from across the world that attended the performance, Singapore’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Singapore. A resounding success, the performance was graced by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had recently returned from a state visit to Singapore, as well as many Ministers. Ms. Sharmila Gunasingham and her accompanying artistes received a standing ovation from the packed audience, which included the Chairman and CEOs of major Sri Lankan companies and international companies from across the world who attended as guests of Ms. Gunasingham.

“Harmony”was an evening of music and dance that featured a unique cross-cultural fusion of musical and dance traditions. Ms. Sharmila Gunasingham was partnered by her Indian Guru, Ramli Ibrahim, as they essayed the roles of Radha and Krishna, the mythical Indian lovers. They were supported by an Indian orchestra, the Chinese guzheng, Sri Lankan Kandyan drums and the music of award-winning Lebanese Armenian composer and musician, Guy Manoukian, and his Arab orchestra. ‘Harmony’was indeed the theme of the evening, as the seamless blending of cultures showcased the interconnectivity of the cultures of South and Western Asia, despite ethnic, religious, and geopolitical boundaries.

Ms. Sharmila Gunasingham spoke from the heart as she addressed the personal and public themes of the evening. Ms. Gunasingham paid tribute to the peace and reconciliation process in Sri Lanka and also spoke a few words in Tamil, receiving immense appreciation from the Colombo audience. In keeping with her promise to her father that she continues to perform, she said, “We will continue using the soft power of the arts and culture to overcome wherever possible the shackles of man-made obstacles which limit our growth as a peaceful world community.”In what can only be considered a twist of fate, the Colombo performance of “Harmony”fell on the date of Ms. Gunasingham’s father’s death anniversary. By fusing different cultures in harmony, Ms. Sharmila Gunasingham symbolized the unity of people that transcends differences.

Ms. Arunthathy Sri Ranganathan has promoted harmony in Sri Lanka through the medium of art and culture since 2005. A celebrity in the world of broadcasting, Ms. Arunthathy is a vocalist and Veena player in Carnatic music, a composer, and a choreographer. She has composed music for numerous dances and multicultural concerts on ethnic harmony and has served as the Artistic Director for many local and international art festivals. A graduate in Economics specializing in Banking, Ms. Arunthathy joined the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and held the appointments of Director-Music, Director-Tamil Service and Consultant.[10]She excelled in organizing Radio festivals during her tenure, through which she readily spotted new talent to build a rich pool of musicians in the world of classical and light music.

This enabled her to create that paradigm shift in the music world by introducing the concepts of harmony and fusion. This visionary and personalized approach of Ms. Arunthathy to music and dance “to build bridges between human beings with different ethnic, religious, and nationalities,”she said: “Artistic and cultural work is probably one of the best ways to create identification, recognition, mutual respect and understanding among people. The ultimate dialogue and building of cultural bridges consist of creating something together, the feeling of oneness. It should start with a mutual artistic, creative process in a mutual artistic language.”[11]
Founded in 2004, Aru Sri Art Theatre is promoting ethnic harmony through visual and performing arts. The vision of Arunthathy is to develop the theatre as a place where traditional art forms can flourish alongside contemporary interpretations. The theatre began with a dynamic and inspired team of versatile musicians and dancers.

Together they imbued their creative energies in to the heart of the repertory, producing ethnic harmony concerts, legendary dance dramas like Shri Ram, Sakunthala, dances of India, Narthana Maduram, Rhythm, Soundarya Lahari and sthree mela.

Sri Lanka’s national multi-ethnic “Oriental Music Orchestra”, showcased their diverse ethnic and regional musical traditions in the new Kathiresan Hall, Colombo on 6 March, 2012. With Raghu Dixit from India, Litjtausa from Norway, Chhayanaut Baouls from Bangladesh, and Sabreen from Palestine, the “Oriental Music Orchestra”performed with Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher artists. One thousand artists performed together with a group of eminent artists and instructors including, Somasiri Ileysinhe, Dr. Nirmala Kumari Rodrigo, Ms. Thavasilingam, Shasthrapathi Kumara Liyanawatte, Dr. Balambigai Rajeswaran, Mrs. Rathai Kumarathas, S. Gobithas, Ms. Packiyaluxmi Nadarajah, Thibaharan, Ms. Yamuna Uswatta and Gayanath. By performing together, they developed a better understanding of diverse musical traditions. They developed their talents by respecting each other’s cultures, ushering in a feeling of oneness. To promote harmony, her request to the Sri Lankan government is to hold drama festivals in all three languages. As a member of the Arts Council of the Cultural Ministry, she has proposed the drama panel to conduct drama competitions and hold festivals.

Ms. Arunthathy’s troupe was invited to perform at the International Ramayana Festival in Bintaan, Indonesia on 12 and 13 of April, 2012 and Sri Shenbaga Vinayagar temple in Singapore on 14 April. Sinhalese and Tamil dancers jointly presented a Hindu theme of two classical Bharathanatya compositions named Swaagatham Vinayaga on Lord Ganapathy, and Shivoham, a vibrant and scintillating dance on Cosmic dance of Shiva. In the Shri Ram dance drama, depicting the Seetha Suyamvaram, all characters in Ramayana was portrayed beautifully by the dancers which captivated the audience. While the music composition, production and direction was by Arunthathy, the dancers were Luxmi Sharma, Josita Peter, Kanchana Sakalasooriya, Lakshi De Silva, Dakshith Samaraweera, Amila Perera, S. Pranesh, Dananjaya Bandara, and Imal Madusanka.

Although the temple in Singapore was not a proper auditorium with perfect sound and lights, the homage to Lord Vinayaga and the beauty was all the Sinhalese dancers were so involved in the performance and the prayers at the temple. The arts and culture can be more powerful than weapons.

Mr. Prashan De Visser is committed to reconciliation and youth empowerment in Sri Lanka. Of Sri Lankan Sinhalese and Burgher descent, De Visser, 25, is the President and Founder of Sri Lanka Unites, a youth movement for hope and reconciliation. The vision of Sri Lanka Unites is “to unite the youth of all ethnic and religious groups across Sri Lanka in a movement that promotes reconciliation, creating a peaceful and prosperous nation for future generations”, and the mission is “to be a symbol for and an example of the powerful potential of united Sri Lankans to work towards sustainable development, peace and prosperity.”[12] The host of “Good Morning Sri Lanka”and an English talk show named “All About Success”on Channel One, De Visser holds a Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts with a major in International Affairs from Gordon College where he was the Student Body President in 2008.[13]Working relentlessly with his team at Sri Lanka Unites, De Visser wants to see reconciliation established in a post-war Sri Lanka. Embracing a multi-pronged approach to promoting reconciliation, Sri Lanka Unites motivates young leaders in schools across the country and in the diaspora to understand the need for reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka. In recognition of Sri Lanka Unites empowerment of youth to undertake and give leadership to inter-community reconciliation initiatives in their localities, De Visser was invited to address the Inaugural National Conference on Reconciliation in Colombo in November 2011.

Ms. Manori Unambuwe is the Founder of Happiness Centres in Sri Lanka’s north and the east. Dedicated to the psychosocial wellbeing of children, her passion to help children began with a visit to the IDP welfare villages in April 2009. Since then she has initiated many psychosocial programmes to support children in overcoming the trauma of a three-decade conflict and in healing their hearts and minds. She created opportunities for children to lead a happier childhood, free from fear, heal the scars of war and give hope for a better future in building a lasting peace in Sri Lanka. She is also actively engaged in the reconciliation process in post-conflict Sri Lanka through many social cohesion and community integration initiatives at the grassroots level, on a volunteer basis. The former Managing Director of Metalix Engineering Co. Ltd., a light engineering company, Ms. Manori Unambuwe currently heads Marketing, Communications and Corporate Citizenship at IBM World Trade Corporation, Sri Lanka.

In the IDP Welfare Villages in Cheddikulam from August 2009 to January 2010, Ms. Unambuwe established two Psychosocial Centres in Zone 4 and 0. Fully equipped with arts and craft material, library, TV/ DVD, musical instruments, sports equipment and computers, they gave the children an environment to play, recreate, interact and learn. She conducted “Art camps”providing therapy through art with participation of close to 3,000 children over a six months period. A review of the art showed a gradual improvement of expressions seen in the art. Other activities included kite competitions and handcraft competitions. To integrate with the children in the south, 100 children in the welfare villagers travelled to Colombo on an excursion and provided them with fun times. The exposure programs included the visit of 50 students to Nuwara Eliya (Hill country) in April 2010. The trip included visits to tea factories, horse races, botanical gardens and the Highland Milk Factory. Furthermore, a highly successful Exhibition of Art and an evening of music and dance performed jointly by children from the welfare villages and Colombo schools were held at the Hilton Hotel in Colombo on 13 December, 2009. To create a path, guide and motivate the children, they were provided career counselling.

After the displaced children were resettled, Ms. Manori Unambuwe continued to set up Happiness Centres in schools in the Northern and Eastern Provinces from January 2010 onwards. These psychosocial centres provide the children with an opportunity to regain their lost childhood and are equipped with arts and craft material, sports and music instruments, a library including a TV/ DVD library. Many activities are conducted within these centres to provide children an opportunity to heal through therapeutic programmes based on arts, music, etc. Nine centres have been established to date in schools in Mallavi, Pandiyankulam, Killinochchi, Pooneryn, Nedunkerny, Mannar, Kuchchuveli and two centres in Mullaitivu district. This is an on-going programme with more centres envisaged. As an early warning mechanism to identify children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and provide necessary support, Children’s Accelerated Trauma Therapy Training programmes are conducted for teachers and supervisors of Happiness Centres. Furthermore, workshops on graphic art, photography, music and collage making were conducted by eight American volunteers of Cartwheel Initiative in December 2011. The workshops were conducted in three Happiness Centres for over 200 children. The programme used various artistic media and work in collaborative workshops for strengthening the healing process towards comprehension, acceptance and transcendence. The workshops culminated in an exhibition in Colombo at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute of their work with 75 students travelling to Colombo to foster reconciliation.

A Holistic Approach to Reconciliation

The Sri Lankan case is a good example of how the private sector, community organizations, international organizations, NGOs and the government came together to rehabilitate and resettle former fighters and reconcile the hearts of the affected people. There is almost no likelihood of any of the 11,500 rehabilitated Tamil Tigers going back to violence. They saw what the conflict was and they experienced it personally. During the conflict most of them lived in a bubble. As a former LTTE cadre said: “they lived in a parallel universe”. Informed only by LTTE propaganda, they did not experience the reality of what happened in Sri Lanka. Now with new opportunities, they want to rebuild their lives. Today, they are enjoying time with their families and friends. However, a segment of those who live overseas, want Sri Lanka to return to conflict. So far the government has failed to reach out to the diasporas especially those who are still under LTTE influence.

The investment in reconciliation has created tremendous prospects of greater stability in the country. Similarly, it is very important to make an even greater investment in the general population of the North and the East. The 30 years of conflict has obviously generated tremendous suspicion and mistrust. The bombings and attacks by the LTTE in the south and the military operations in the north polarized the thinking of the people in the north and the south. To mainstream the thinking, build harmony and to bridge this divide, reconciliation is the tool.

Despite progress, there are many challenges facing Sri Lanka. Today, the most challenging issue for Sri Lanka is to restructure its education system to produce Sri Lankans, and not Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. As an educator himself, the Monitoring MP for Education, Mr. Mohan Lal Grero, recognized the challenges. Most Sinhalese Buddhists grew up as Sinhalese in Sinhalese schools and not as Sri Lankans. Similarly, in Tamil schools, the children grew up as Tamils and not as Sri Lankans. The same is with some Muslim schools. The conflict polarized the communities and created a sectarian education system that segregated Sri Lankans by ethnicity and religion. If a new system can be created, it will benefit every Sri Lankan. They will come to know the richness of growing up with different ethnic and religious groups. This will help reduce mutual mistrust or suspicion as well.

The polarization leading to the conflict could thus be attributed to a significant extent to politicians irrespective of which party they belong to – the governing party, the opposition or the TNA which is an ethnic-based sectarian party. There is a tendency to play the ethnic – and even the religious – card especially during elections to get votes. Although the TNA presents a public face that it is interested in reconciliation, it is not genuinely committed to the reconciliation process. As a proxy of the LTTE remnants operating overseas, the TNA is a spoiler of reconciliation. According to Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan, a former child combatant and a commander of the LTTE, “We should not consider the demands of the TNA as those of the Tamil people.”[14]Therefore, in post-conflict Sri Lanka, it is very important to develop a norm and an ethic against the exploitation of ethnic and religious differences which can again damage the social fabric of Sri Lanka.

In addition to government, private sector and community efforts, reconciliation is also taking place naturally. There is an atmosphere of overall goodwill especially involving those who lived through the conflict from the beginning. Furthermore, the youth of the north and the south were less driven by ethnic and religious prejudices and more by economic opportunities. In the north or the south, east or the west, the people were committed to building bridges of hope and friendship. Most people in Vanni said: “What I need is security, a job, a house, and I need to send my children to school.”Their concerns are not different from the people elsewhere. Addressing such issues should be the focus – not playing politics and dividing the country by ethnicity and religion. Ethnic and religious prejudice is largely limited to the elite in Colombo and few who live outside the country. In contrast, the people in the rural areas want to live in peace. There should be reflection and discussion about these key issues confronting the ordinary people by the elite and the intellectuals. In the past, many missteps precipitated the vicious conflict with huge humanitarian costs. To prevent a recurrence and make progress, it is time for all Sri Lankans to take a hard look at the mistakes that need to be undone and learn from and reinforce the initiatives that have produced harmony and prosperity in the country.


[1]“Thoughts of our leader,” The LTTE Education Department, Batticaloa April 1995
[7]The late Mr. C. Gunasingham was a distinguished career diplomat who served as Sri Lanka’s first High Commissioner to Singapore before being appointed in 1983 as Economic Advisor to late President Jayawardene, the first Executive President of Sri Lanka – an appointment he held for a decade.
[8]Corporate lawyer Ms. Sharmila Gunasingham is Founder and Managing Director of Global Law Alliance LLC, Singapore, which has a global footprint in 43 countries across the globe through its alliance partners.
[9]Experiencing cultural fusions with ‘Harmony’, Daily FT, February 25, 2012,

[11] Email Interview with Mrs. Arunthathy, 27 February, 2012
[14]Wamanan, Arthur, “Post-Conflict Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: A Time for Reflection”, The Nation, 28-01-2012

(Asanga Abeygoonasekera is from the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies, Sri Lanka and Rohan Gunaratna is attached to the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Singapore)