Home » Navigating Reconciliation: Sri Lanka at the 15 Year Post-War Juncture

Navigating Reconciliation: Sri Lanka at the 15 Year Post-War Juncture


Photo courtesy of Everyday Peace Indicators – Sri Lanka

As Sri Lanka marks 15 years since the end of its civil war, it is a critical time to reflect on the past and look to the future. Central to this juncture is the concept of reconciliation, a cornerstone of post-war discourse.

The legacy of the civil war still haunts communities across the island nation. While Sri Lanka boasts a rich tapestry of ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity – a source of strength and resilience – lingering ethnic tensions have deterred investment, hindered development and impeded progress. Without genuine reconciliation, the nation’s diversity risks being exploited as fault lines for further division. Conversely, a climate of trust and cooperation can catalyze economic growth, attract foreign investment and create opportunities for all Sri Lankans, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

As part of the discussions on reconciliation, fundamental questions arise: What does reconciliation truly mean and who gets to define what it is? Traditionally, “experts” have led the discourse and shaped national reconciliation programs based on top down approaches. Given Sri Lanka’s diverse population it is also important to ask: Do all communities experience reconciliation in the same way? Do their needs align?

Consider the varied realities of individuals such as a Tamil woman in a remote village in Mullaitivu, a Muslim businessman from Akurana and a Sinhalese farmer from a border village in Anuradhapura. Each person brings a unique perspective shaped by their distinct experiences, exposure to the war and other conflicts, livelihoods and geographic location. Shouldn’t reconciliation priorities be tailored to these diverse needs grounded in the lived experiences of different communities?

Everyday Peace Indicators (EPI) is a nonprofit organization of a diverse team of academics, researchers and development sector practitioners dedicated to understanding and fostering peace in conflict affected regions worldwide. Since late 2018, EPI has been actively engaged in Sri Lanka, aiming to uncover how different ethnic communities experience reconciliation or the lack thereof.

EPI’s unique research approach centers on everyday lives of communities. The process begins with focus groups within communities to generate specific indicators (of reconciliation in this case). These indicators undergo a rigorous verification and voting process by community participation, ensuring they accurately reflect community priorities. The refined indicators are then analyzed to guide programming and policy decisions, ultimately feeding into comprehensive surveys designed to track changes in community perceptions over time.

Starting in late 2018, EPI engaged over 3,000 men, women and youth across 30 largely mono-ethnic Grama Niladhari Divisions (GNDs) in seven districts. These included 12 Tamil majority GNDs in the Northern Province, nine Muslim-majority GNDs in the Eastern and Central Provinces and nine Sinhalese Buddhist-majority GNDs in the North Central and Central Provinces. Through focus groups, EPI collected over 4,000 indicators of reconciliation during the initial data collection phase in 2018/19. A subsequent round in 2022 involving a subset of these GNDs gathered an additional 2,000 indicators.

EPI asked communities to describe the daily experiences that signal to them whether their community has achieved its reconciliation needs. These signs, or what we refer to as everyday indicators, allow us to systematically analyze and understand how different communities across the country perceive reconciliation. An analysis of these community generated indicators reveals to us that community perceptions of reconciliation do vary depending on factors such as ethnicity, age, geographic location and past exposure to conflict.

EPI data gathered in 2018/19 demonstrate that Tamil communities in the Northern Province emphasized the role of the state and state services in achieving reconciliation, prioritizing health, education, economic opportunities and reparations. For example, “The government coming forward and giving appropriate solutions to the protests of those who were disappeared.” (Kallapaddu North GND, Mullaitivu District); “The state creates self-employment opportunities in Pallavarayankaddu” (Pallavarayankaddu GND, Kilinochchi District); “The government provides financial aid to students selected to university who are from war affected areas.” (Gnanimadam GND, Kilinochchi District).

However, Sinhalese and Muslim communities that live in close proximity to other ethnic communities broadly perceive reconciliation in relation to inter-ethnic relations. Economic and livelihood aspects, education and rule of law often intertwined with inter-ethnic relations were presented in these GNDs as priority reconciliation needs. For example, “Tamil schools in Batticaloa allow Muslim students for the Jumma prayers on Friday.” (Kattankudy, Batticaloa District); “Muslims own paddy lands in Sinhala areas such as Pallachanai, Mudaliyavatti, Karalawai and Hingurana.” (Varipathanchenai, Ampara District); “When can Muslim girls go to a Sinhala school wearing an abaya?” (Bulugohothenna GND, Kandy District). Indicators that had opposing views towards Muslim women’s attire were expressed by Sinhalese mono-ethnic villages such as “Muslims don’t wear black clothing”, which was a clear indication of how community understanding of reconciliation varies across ethnic communities.

Administering the EPI process a second round in 2022 in a subset of sample GNDs provided enriched data, showing how reconciliation priorities can shift over time. Community generated indicators between May and August 2022, as Sri Lanka faced the peak of its economic and political crisis, showed a significant rise in the importance of intracommunity relations across communities. GNDs such as Kattankudy (Batticaloa District), Indrasarapura (Ampara District), Sudarshanagama (Anuradhapura District) and Pallavarayankaddu (Mullaitivu District) highlighted a growing emphasis on intracommunal relations as necessary to reconciliation. Example indicators being “There is no conflict between families in Thachadamban Grama Sevaka Division due to insufficient income.” (Thachadamban GND, Mullaitivu District); “Sinhalese in Ellepola participate for Shramadana in the area.” (Ellepola GND, Kandy District); “All the boys in Indrasarapura get together and play volleyball at the community center playground.” (Indrasarapura GND, Ampara District).

This shift likely resulted from the combined effects of COVID-19 lockdowns and the subsequent economic turmoil. In mono-ethnic communities, lockdowns reduced interactions with other ethno-religious groups, intensifying the focus on internal community ties. The 2022 economic crisis further amplified this trend as people increasingly depended on each other to obtain essential goods such as food and fuel. “At times of fuel shortage in Kudumpimalai, everyone travels together in the Land Master.” (Kudumbimalai GND, Batticaloa District).

Additionally, EPI conducted surveys to track shifts in public attitudes toward reconciliation deploying a baseline survey in late 2019 across 30 GNDs and an end-line survey in late 2023 covering 18 GNDs. Each survey included common inter-ethnic questions and indicator-based questions (IBQs) customized for each community based on locally prioritized indicators. These community-specific IBQs help assess prevalence or lack of reconciliation in each community over time. This process has allowed EPI data to serve as a monitoring and evaluation tool, enabling comparative analysis of changes over time on reconciliation-related aspects highlighted by each community.

Our survey data suggests that there have been meaningful improvements in inter-ethnic relations across surveyed GNDs despite facing significant challenges. Particularly noteworthy are the increases in positive perceptions and contact within Sinhala communities of Padaviya (Anuradhapura) and Tamil communities of Koralaipattu South (Batticaloa), both heavily affected by wartime violence. These advancements may be attributed to several factors including heightened local interdependence and cooperation spurred by crises between 2020 and 2022 such as the Easter Sunday attacks and economic instability.

Yet, a critical gap remains in reconciliation efforts – transferring locally sourced knowledge to reconciliation programming and policy related decision making.

In an attempt to inform reconciliation programming, EPI data was used to inform USAID’s Social Cohesion and Reconciliation (SCORE) programming in selected villages in Sri Lanka. Recommendations based on the indicator lists gathered were used to guide program design and implementation in select GNDs. EPI’s surveys were also able to assess SCORE programs and its impact on the perceptions on reconciliation in the communities. These select communities were now able to experience programs that were designed based on reconciliation needs raised by them and prioritized by them over time.

EPI, committed to contributing to post-war reconciliation in Sri Lanka, acknowledges the need for collaborative efforts to shape the future landscape. In January 2024, EPI brought together prominent civil society actors from the peace building and reconciliation sector to share its findings and foster dialogue on Sri Lanka’s path forward. Through the EPI process, in collaboration with invited CSOs and activists, key priorities for the national reconciliation agenda were identified. Here is an account of these priorities: Efforts towards reconciliation must prioritize the protection of marginalized communities and prioritize the wellbeing of victims, particularly through enhanced psycho-social support integrated into various programs. Strengthening the connection between peacebuilding and justice is imperative, alongside advancing reconciliation through education by integrating critical thinking, alternative narratives in history curriculums and fostering awareness of biases. Political participation, especially among women and youth, should be boosted through measures like quotas and dedicated engagement platforms. Language rights must be upheld and collaboration across sectors including SMEs, trade unions, media, and academia is essential for effective peacebuilding.

The CSO and activists presented key actions and conditions necessary to advance their work in Sri Lanka. These included ensuring CSOs operate freely without surveillance or legal constraints; maintaining consistent support from donors for long term peacebuilding, inclusive funding processes and capacity building for smaller CSOs; emphasizing real impacts over metrics and facilitating CSO engagement with policymakers; and broadening reconciliation initiatives to include all ethnic groups with a special emphasis on involving Sinhalese communities for comprehensive national reconciliation.

EPI strongly believes that Sinhalese communities must be included in the reconciliation process. EPI has engaged with Sinhalese communities in the North Central, Eastern and Central Provinces. However, it is apparent that the Southern province, often overlooked in reconciliation processes, warrants attention from government, donors and other actors in the peacebuilding sector. How can a nation truly reconcile when segments of its population are excluded from the conversation?

Achieving genuine reconciliation requires a nuanced understanding of diverse needs and perspectives, coupled with inclusive methodologies such as those pioneered by Everyday Peace Indicators. Our research sheds light on community-specific perceptions of reconciliation. It provides a nuanced analysis of reconciliation needs of Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese communities. Additionally, EPI data provides the foundation for the design of reconciliation programs of SCORE programming and EPI’s community generated data can also be used to measure the success of these and current programs to determine if they have truly strengthened peace and reconciliation.

It is imperative that future research endeavors must expand beyond traditional focal points, encompassing the entirety of Sri Lanka, to ensure no community is left behind in the pursuit of lasting peace. By truly listening to the reconciliation needs of everyday people, the nation can stride towards a future untainted by the errors of the past.

Everyday Peace Indicators (EPI) is a non-profit research organization dedicated to utilizing community-generated indicators to guide peacebuilding efforts in regions affected by conflict. Its work supports peace building efforts across the world including in the US, Colombia, Bosnia, Herzegovina and Sri Lanka. Inspired by the EPI approach, two groundbreaking initiatives, the Grounded Accountability Model(GAM) and the Firsthand Framework, have come to fruition.

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