Working to secure the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples

Minority Rights Group International campaigns worldwide with around 130 partners in over 60 countries to ensure that disadvantaged minorities and indigenous peoples, often the poorest of the poor, can make their voices heard.

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Chapter Three

What we found

5 min read

Most participants did not feel that they were participating or involved in any reconciliation process, nor that they were ready to do so – in many cases, their understanding of reconciliation was overshadowed or suppressed by the trauma they had suffered during the last stages of the war and their ongoing difficulties.

Most of the women’s art focused on their current situation, which they explained needed to be addressed before any lasting reconciliation process could take root. In many cases the participants were unable to see beyond their immediate problems, which were often very serious –  the disappearance or death of loved ones, for example, as well as more practical concerns such as access to a job or housing. It was evident that the failure to resolve these issues was a major obstacle to reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

True reconciliation can only begin once citizens feel secure

‘The problem is not over yet.  We are not sure if the kidnappings are over.’ – Hindu woman, 53, Trincomalee

There were recurring references to continuing rights violations and limitations on freedoms. One of the participants claimed that arrests by government forces were ongoing, with civilians kept in detention while family members were not provided any information on their situation.

‘They are continuously involved in arresting our people.   Now they are keeping them in prison permanently. They don’t have intension to release our people.  So we are living with fear and we have no difference between now and the past. Still we are living restless lives.’ – Hindu woman, 44, Trincomalee

Reconciliation will not happen until people can speak freely and without fear

Our lives are still bounded by barbed wire. – Christian woman, 24, Mannar

Basic freedoms in many former conflict zones in Sri Lanka continue to be severely restricted. This repressive climate, described by a number of participants, is a major barrier to any meaningful steps towards reconciliation.

In Sri Lanka we don’t have freedom. When compared with other countries we are living without basic freedoms here. We want to enjoy the right to speak. We cannot express our thoughts and concerns freely. – Muslim woman, 40, Mannar

Reconciliation must begin with justice for the families of those who were killed, disappeared or arrested and never returned

The search for truth and accountability resonated in many of the poems and art work. Women whose family members had disappeared or were arrested felt there could be no reconciliation until the fate of their loved ones was known and acknowledged. They also wanted justice. Almost every participant had lost a loved one during the last stages of the war and their continued grief was evident in their work.

Reconciliation may begin when trust starts to rebuild – but do 30 years of war mean 30 years of distrust?

A key finding was the continued lack of trust in the Sri Lankan government at the time. This, as described by many participants, made any engagement in reconciliation suspect. Many pieces displayed considerable scepticism about the intentions of authorities and any attempt by them to build trust:

Reconciliation is a
Cunning drama of government to protect itself.
It is a plan to cheat us
and pull us into a bottomless pit.
Those who trust it are like
the deer who run after a mirage.
Hindu Tamil woman, 52, Mannar

Listen in Tamil (read by an actor)

There were also references to the military and government agents as occupiers, with one painting depicting sweets, butterflies and scorpions spilling from the mouth of a figure identified as a politician who lies and convinces people he is doing good when he is doing bad.  In most cases, black and dark colours were used to draw soldiers or state symbols, indicating that participants had a negative association with them.

So, will you do as you promised?
Once you are seated on the throne again, will you disrespect us?
It’s fine!
You will again become a normal man- then you will understand who we are!
Hindu woman, 34, Mullaittivu

Reconciliation is a fraud
It is a drama of dissembling….
Christian woman, 44, Mannar

Reconciliation requires equal access to resources such as land, housing and livelihood opportunities

‘This place is like this when we came here after displacement and still it looks like the same.  We are not given a house though we are three members in our family. But my husband lost his left hand completely. We are still residing in a temporary shelter in this place.’ – Hindu woman, 52, Mullai

All I need is –
Work for survival
Meals three times a day
I trust God, for
There will be a dawn!
Hindu woman, 32, Killinochchi

There were frequent references to the impact of displacement. Some pictures were focused around houses, highlighting how a home is associated with stability and security as well as dispossession and dislocation. In their narratives some participants talked of their lands and houses being occupied by others, with most referencing the military.

‘Our land belongs to us. Others should not occupy it forcefully and deprive us of our land.’ – Hindu woman, 47, Mullai

Another recurring issue raised by participants was the limited income opportunities available and their lack of access to resources, including water:

‘We are not happy as we are not able to live in our original places. We are struggling to get drinking water.’ – Hindu woman, 60, Trincomalee

What public assistance has been made available to communities can create further problems. For example, one participant reported that government support was not equitably distributed amongst all victims, which was causing conflict in the village.

Reconciliation is still possible – but only if the traumatic legacy of the conflict is addressed

The most obvious finding that emerged from this project, through observations of the trainers and interpretation of the work, was the acute level of trauma that many of the victims continue to face. This was evident in the fact that hardly any of the participants used their favourite colour in their pictures and instead employed dark shades, including black – which has a negative representation in Tamil culture – and red. Many paintings also focused on the war, depicting marching soldiers and bombing raids, suggesting that their memories on the conflict were still raw several years on.

Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming suffering of many participants and the continued distrust of the authorities, some women expressed tentative hopes for a more harmonius future in Sri Lanka:

Love is reconciliation
Relationship is reconciliation
Reconciliation is like a flower with fragrance
Pleading you, reconciliation, come to us
We have an eye on you…
We have dreams…
Don’t pass as a dream… come alive…
Muslim woman, Mannar, 40

Listen in Tamil (read by an actor)