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There is a view, very common internationally now, that ‘reconciliation’ in Sri Lanka will not come about, until there is ‘justice’ and ‘accountability.’ These arguments are well known now but it’s worth delving into the basic assumptions that underlie them.

It is assumed, in the ‘reconciliation’ argument, that there were two sides which fought for a long time. That one side defeated the other side. Now, both sides must stand trial, so that charges, for which ‘credible evidence’ is available, can be proved. Once proved, the leaders or representatives of both sides must be punished. And then, all will be well.


Since this is an argument about Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, a very Sri Lankan analogy might help. Land litigation. As we know, litigation over land boundaries is common all over this island. Sometimes, it’s a significant chunk of real estate that’s at stake, but often it’s not. It can, sometimes, come down to just one coconut tree that sits on the fence between two properties. The point here isn’t the tree at all, of course. The real catalyst is another dispute, about honor, status, insult or humiliation, that can’t be taken to court.

So the tree is really a proxy; the litigants will go on and on, from the lowest court, to the highest, fighting for a few inches of land, often selling other properties, or even mortgaging the very property that is in dispute, until victory is arrived at. Of course, victory comes slowly here, not only because the courts are slow but because even as one side wins and celebrates and humiliates the other side in word and deed, the other side is planning their appeal. It used to be that you could go right up to the Queen’s privy council for this kind of matter. Finally, there are no more courts to petition. Mercifully, the matter is over. Both sides are bankrupt, one side gets to move the fence. Are they reconciled? No, their enmity has turned even more bitter.

I have a different approach to reconciliation. First, let’s not have sides; two or three. Lets acknowledge we are all responsible for lots of deaths, destruction and grief. Let’s not simply try to forget either; let’s remember together.

Priyan Attygalle, an old friend of mine, offered me the suggestion of a friend of his, Sunderasan Padmanathan, who proposes that we should consider everyone who was killed in the war a hero. Not just those who died, supposedly on the one ‘side’ or the other. I like this idea, because I feel it’s on the right track; no ‘sides.’

But I also have my own suggestion, and it is concrete and practical. It may however, be a little complex in execution, but it is not impossible.

Let us lay out, in concrete or granite, somewhere in this country, a large map of Sri Lanka. It must be to scale, with all its mountains and valleys, rivers and reservoirs, forests and cities. Let it be, say, 500 meters in length. Or more. Let us, on this map, mark the place of every violent event that took place within its shores, from the 5th of April 1971 to the 19th of May 2009. It cannot be comprehensive of course, but it can be representative, not of ‘sides,’ but in the sense of a random statistical sample. Identify survivors of these selected events. Record what they remember, not about politics, not about violence, not about who did what to whom, but about the love they bore and bare for he or she who died in that place. That’s all, a narrative of their love and attachment, which will also be a narrative of loss, pain and grief. Let us take these recordings, made in the language the survivor chooses, and translate them also into the other two languages of our country.

The idea is to place these recordings on the map of our country, so that any one, especially our children, can listen to them. This map then will be filled with markers, of stone also, simple and yet distinct from the terrain it represents, of death. Violent death. Let us walk this map-- it is a large map, remember, and we can walk on it; respectfully of course -- as we walk our country, and we can visit and re-visit, in some small way, each place where someone died.

As we walk this map, then, with a simple, portable, playback device, with a pre-recorded disk, yes, like an iPod, and a pair of supplied head phones, which we obtain from the administrator of the site as one does in some museums now, we should be able to listen at each place that is marked, by selecting a number, such as k324 on the device, to a narrative of a survivor or family member that pertains to that place.

Listen, take it in and perhaps move on to another spot. It will take hours, of course, perhaps days, to traverse this map.

I do not offer panaceas nor can I foretell the future.

But I do think this may be a better way for us Sri Lankans to reconcile ourselves to our violent past.

(was published in print, in the Nation on Sunday, on 23/10/2011)


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Reader Comments (1)

Brilliant proposal. I love it. Through stories of loss, grief, tragedy and love we will all see how the horror of what happened has no sides. Everyone suffered. How do you plan to get this implemented?
May 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTamara

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