Been on my fieldwork in Sri Lanka has inspired me to write a blog post about why I’m so interested in pursuing the topic of transitional justice and reconciliation for my PhD research project. In academia we seldom get to talk about our personal views, so this defining moment for me always gets stored at the back of my mind where the cobwebs live. But, so many people I met on a professional level have asked me, why? why reconciliation?
When I first moved to London, in 2012, and started my new job, a colleague, a young Sri Lankan Tamil gentleman (H) approached me and we started getting to know each other, moving on to the ‘where are you from originally’, we were both stunned to realise that we have something else in common; Sri Lanka. But there was also something else that could have stopped our friendship from growing; our perception of each others identities*.
As much as meeting a Tamil was not a big deal for me, for H it was the first time meeting someone Sinhalese at all; let alone having a proper conversation. However, what struck me was that, he had already created this image of a ‘Sinhala’ person from what he has heard all his life. This is common for most second generation Tamil’s living abroad (or broadly using the term Tamil diaspora). For him the Sinhalese were his enemy, they committed many atrocities to his family that forced them leave their motherland – and go through a dangerous journey to get to where they are now. Everything he learnt about the Sinhalese and Sri Lanka was still censored by LTTE propaganda. And whilst most of what he heard might be true, he had no idea about the horrific stories from the other side. This is also true for most of us who lived safely in the big city; we seldom heard the horrific stories from the conflict zones committed by this side.
H and I are now great friends, our friendship was coloured by the stories we told each other, and the knowledge we shed on each other, and the excitement in discovering the common things our cultures share. This may not be the case for everyone, there have certainly been people I encountered that was not open as H, and those that denied their Sri Lankan identity to me. However, the realisation I got was that, maybe this is where reconciliation starts. And I acknowledge that it might be easy for me to sit here and say let’s start from the personal when I did not have to see my family butchered in front of my eyes, or when I’m not the one still looking for answers. It may not be the same for a victim to personally reconcile with the perpetrator. I am completely aware of this. But this is where reconciliation has different levels – and these different levels need to come together at some point. But for now, shall we start here?
*When I use the term identities here, I mean both cultural and political; because in a context like Sri Lanka the political tends to be embedded in the cultural.