The Clash of
“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort
of everyone I’ve ever known.”
(Photo by Inoka Jinasena)
My perspective is one of a 25-year-old who was born
in Sri Lanka during the war and who came to France at the age of 1, one
who is considered or seen as a French person in her country of birth but
who is expected to behave as a Sri Lankan, one who also happens to
“belong” to both the ethnic and religious majority of the
In a country comprised mainly of Buddhists, one would think that Sri
Lanka would be more tolerant, more understanding and open to other
people’s beliefs and cultures. Yet, though I may not know much about the
ground reality, when I hear about anti-Muslim demonstrations, when I
hear about discriminatory behavior and attitudes towards Tamils or when
I do not hear at all about Burghers, I do not see much effort towards
understanding, and certainly not much tolerance in my country. Though
this is not to be generalized, what I sometimes notice are various forms
of marginalization, frustration and sometimes even extremism from all
sides. It seems to me that one of the main challenges in postwar Sri
Lanka is therefore to resolve the current clash of identities.
While the recent postwar efforts of the government of Sri Lanka have
been commendable—though they may not quite be “in every sense” as John
Ging said—to build a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka, much effort remains
to be done in terms of ethnic reconciliation in conjunction with both
political and socio-economic reconciliation.
Ultranationalism, within both the Sinhalese and the Tamil communities,
led to frustrations on both sides, especially within the Diaspora(s).
For minorities, this frustration was mainly built on ethno-religious
stigmatization, social discrimination or sometimes even
rejection—feelings that often exclude and marginalize communities even
further. This sense of exclusion led minorities to perceive, sometimes
wrongly, the slightest change as a potential form of discrimination.
Paradoxically, it gave a sense of a somewhat auto-proclaimed superiority
to the majority.
Maybe because I grew up away from the conflict, maybe because I was
educated in France, maybe because I am naive enough to believe in a
better Sri Lanka, I never really made any ethnic distinction between Sri
Lankans. On the contrary, I always considered myself, first and
foremost, as a Sri Lankan. And yet, how many times was I asked,
especially in France, whether I was a Sinhalese, a Muslim or a Tamil?
Though I never really understood why, I realized that people gave a
tremendous importance to this ONE question, and I kept wondering “. . .
but aren’t we all Sri Lankans? Or does my Sinhalese and Buddhist legacy
give me a legitimacy that my Tamil, Muslim or Burgher friends do not
seem to have?” If so, I still wonder how.
Of course, we all have our own identity(ies). The very notion of
identity itself will be defined differently depending on each
individual/group, making its interpretation subjective to each
individual/group. We are different from each other, and, at the same
time, we carry diversity within ourselves. Each of us is, indeed, a
unique combination of various identifications that are not equally
significant to us. Far from being static, this notion transforms itself
throughout the different stages of our life. But can we build a
collective identity based on what intrinsically defines us as an
individual? How come that in such a small island people do not feel as
if they belong to one nation, to one Sri Lanka? How come members of the
Diaspora, especially the second and third generation, are most of the
time considered as non-Sri Lankans in their country of origin?
The report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)
itself, in its Section III on “Reconciliation,” says, “The
development of a vision of a shared future requires the involvement of
the whole of society. . . . A culture of respect for human rights and
human diversity needs to be developed creating an environment where each
citizen becomes an active participant in society and feels a sense of
belonging, of being Sri Lankan.” Yet, in postwar Sri Lanka, the very
concept of Sri Lankan-ness, or of Sri Lankan consciousness, a concept
which is yet to materialize, is often seen as an idealistic vision. Few
are those who actually believe in it. I for one believe that future
generations, both in Sri Lanka and within the Diaspora, have the ability
to build a more united country, one that will incorporate socio-economic
disparities but also our religious beliefs, political affiliations,
cultural similarities and differences; one that will give us a
broader, therefore stronger, sense of belonging, including
national belonging, through solidarity and appreciation of cultural
diversity; one that will ultimately include both our individual and
collective identities. Mutual respect and understanding should therefore
be our common denominators as Sri Lankans.
An idealistic, yet feasible, tentative approach to build a Sri Lankan
identity would be to create and maintain an inclusive society. What I
mean by that is that we should adopt a multidimensional approach that
will ultimately promote both social integration and social cohesion.
This suggestion means further participation in public affairs by all
communities, including perhaps the Diaspora(s). This initiative also
means engaging in a process of reconciliation by maintaining the
security of all individuals but also respecting the rule of law,
equality of rights and justice and equity in the distribution of wealth
and resources, thereby achieving the realization of the legitimate
rights of all citizens.
The role of education, not only in its broader sense but mainly the
education received at school, the one that should place all children on
an equal stage, is here predominant, not to say crucial. I believe that
it is the instrument that can provide the opportunity to learn values of
respect and appreciation of diversity through the promotion of
multiculturalism, pluralism and ultimately respect for all forms of
In a postwar situation, the restoration of trust among and within
communities is also a prerequisite for reconciliation. But can there be
a restoration of trust without forgiveness from both sides? Any
discussion of accountability must recognize the need for mutual
accountability. Yes, there was a war, and an extremely violent war which
lasted for more than three decades and whose scars are still to be
healed, but we have to go forward—we must go forward—and avoid repeating
the same mistakes.
Sri Lanka did win the war, but it still did not win the peace and the
harmony that goes with it. With the end of the war, we now have a second
chance to build a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka. This peace can only be
achieved through mutual or common understanding, through dialogue
and eventually through trust between all communities. This process
requires forging a sense of belonging, a national unity amidst diversity
and ultimately a culture of peace (to use the phrase of the
former head of UNESCO, Frederico Mayor). Postwar Sri Lanka is the chance
for the younger generation, both within Sri Lanka and among the
Diasporas, to build a better Sri Lanka.
* Kamaya Jayatissa, president of What’s Next!, is a Ph.D. student in
international law at the Sorbonne University in Paris. She holds a
master’s degree in international law from the Sorbonne and a diploma in
international governance and sustainable development from Sciences Po in
What’s Next! is an independent forum comprising postgraduates and young
professionals of Sri Lankan origin residing in France. What’s Next!
seeks to promote a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka through intellectual
exchange and multicultural dialogue.
This article was published on Nov. 28, 2012, in the Columbia Telegraph,
a public interest web site that relates to Sri Lankan issues and is
operated by a group of exile journalists at <www.colombotelegraph.com>.