APSL WE SRI LANKA webinar with George R Willy

APSL We Sri Lanka has now launched a new webinar series.  The inaugural webinar was held on Sat, 30th January, featuring eminent US lawyer George R Willy, titled ‘An Anatomy of a Sri Lankan Reconciliation’.

George has advised the Clinton and Obama administrations on immigration law in relation to South Asia. He is a TV and radio talk show host who interviews prominent public figures and people with extraordinary abilities. George gave a highly acclaimed speech on reconciliation when President Mahinda Rajapakse visited Texas in 2010.

During his inspiring talk, George outlined some meaningful ways how we can contribute to lasting reconciliation in Sri Lanka.  Alluding to the World Bank’s support for Sri Lanka in transitioning to ‘a more competitive, inclusive and resilient upper-middle income country,’ George spoke about how Sri Lankan expatriate organisations and the international community can marshal their resources to assist the country in this transition amidst the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic. He also talked about the importance of focusing on the ‘here and now’ rather than on the past, focusing on the following themes.

  • Linking economic development to social goals such as reconciliation: Organisations such as APSL can collaborate to form a robust and well-informed ‘Reconciliation Committee’ to identify, tie-up funding and activate opportunities for collaboration between various ethnic groups in their programmes and ventures. Examples such as including partners from each of the ethnic communities in an engineering project, encouraging north-south collaboration in agricultural projects, and prioritising the rehabilitation of people that have suffered mentally and physically from the conflict were suggested. Citing the Marshall Plan in Japan and Germany, and the North investing heavily in the South after the American Civil War, George emphasised that this approach would lay vital ‘economic bridges’ for collaboration, allow benefits to flow to all the joining parties, and build inter-dependence and vested interests. This would also allow the country’s leadership to set the ground for a political solution (down the road) as both sides gain, vested interests are created among competing factions, and extreme voices silenced.
  • Shedding ethnic chauvinism: Drawing a parallel to how excluding women from vital decision making, education and development has impaired human progress, George pointed out how Sri Lankans have succumbed to excluding one group of humans from vital activities of society, and the downgrading of one ethnic group over the other because of a deeply felt sense of superiority. He mentioned how exclusion cripples, while embracing each other enriches. George also spoke about the vital importance of appreciating the contributions of all ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. He evoked memories of how he grew up in Jaffna in awe of Tamil language, poetry, history, culture and education, but also how he appreciated the Sinhala language, culture, and the historic engineering feats in Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Sigiriya. He called for a celebration of historic landmarks like Sigiriya and the Nallur Kovil as ‘Sri Lankan’ achievements. He spoke about how little Sinhala and Tamil people knew about the language, aspirations and struggles of each other, and how chauvinism blinded one group to the greatness of the other in spite of living together in the same island for thousands of years. George suggested that earning each other’s language would help to redress this, beginning with the translation of major works of Tamil and Sinhala literature into the other language.

In conclusion, George spoke of the need for a comprehensive reconciliation programme, as without it progress in Sri Lanka would be weighed down by ethnic tensions that may plunge the country back into mayhem. George also mentioned how this year’s Queen’s honours list included Sri Lankans from the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities. He also recalled how Tamil and Sinhala families protected each other during periods of unrest (including a personal family story), and the longstanding cultural ties that bring us all together. He ended with a rallying call for all ethnic groups in Sri Lanka to set aside their prejudices, put their collective shoulder to the wheel, and return the island back to paradise.

An absorbing Q&A session followed, and George’s responses to audience questions are summarised here:

  • The Sri Lankan diaspora has a vital role to play in reconciliation. They have access to resources, are very influential in countries they live in, can help to develop reconciliation opportunities within projects, and above all, have a deeply felt desire to give back to Sri Lanka.
  • Approaching reconciliation from an economic lens is much easier than advancing a grand political scheme. When economic projects that involve different ethnic groups grow, they create vested interests that when protected or defended together can help to overcome the disruption from extreme voices.
  • Minority voices taking a hostile approach to Sri Lanka may do so because passions run high. They or their families may have suffered or witnessed horrible incidents. They too can join the economic effort and transfer their passions because focusing on helping ‘the living’ is important.
  • Clergy of all religions, especially Buddhist clergy have a critical role because they are very influential. From time to time, Buddhist clergy have made an enormous contribution to peace, so well-meaning voices who want to help should be encouraged to use their pulpit for better use than sometimes done.
  • Regional bodies in Sri Lanka are perfect for the economic model (for reconciliation) especially if they can collaborate among themselves. For instance, entities in Jaffna and Matara can get together and ask for financing. When such collaboration brings in more funding it will encourage even more projects. A “Reconciliation Committee’ in Sri Lanka can be created to act as a ‘clearing house’ for such projects.
  • Ordinary Sri Lankans play an important role as reconciliation needs a grassroots effort. Rather than a matter for two groups,’ it is a way for the different ethnic groups to come together. Opportunities to celebrate cultural festivals (together) like the Sinhala and Tamil New Year when each other’s food can be exchanged and enjoyed on the same day can be encouraged – it’s our New Year! But there is a lot of work to do, and someone has to initiate and organise. This will also bring together the different religions.
  • Speaking about the government’s role, George mentioned how Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara begun initiatives such as teaching languages to each other’s children. The current government is busy with priorities such as the pandemic. So, organisations such as APSL could begin to engage at a political level too. A “Reconciliation Committee” (in the UK/US) can engage the government (via the High Commission) to influence thinking and policy. It can be an instrument to present the big picture and long-term view.
  • Politicians will pay attention if reconciliation is tied to economic projects. ‘Money talks. For instance, if the UK is going to fund aid or investment including a reconciliation component will get politicians to start thinking, and that will then influence political thinking.
  • Economics influences politics as the ‘means of production’ affects political thought (as explained by Karl Marx). Economics affects lives and day to day living, so once you start developing the economy, political thinking changes. Also, in times of hardship political thinking changes. They also influence each other.
  • As Sri Lanka is strategically positioned in the Indian Ocean it is attractive to both India and China, and Sri Lanka should take full advantage of that. Sri Lanka should resist any pressure to change our politics, but make use of any economic help as it comes.
  • Expatriate organisations can help counter divisive news about Sri Lanka by encouraging people working for moderation and reconciliation. That will help to tone down extremist voices. We cannot directly fight groups that spread hate, but we can certainly encourage organisations who moderate the thinking.
  • Ultimately, reconciliation requires a political solution no matter what is done. We need to seriously think about long term ideas that bring all these groups together. I have always dreamed of a grand event where we say sorry and forgive each other, embrace as Sri Lankans, reaffirming our shared identity, and starting a new beginning. It will be a symbolic effort that will attract significant interest and coverage.
  • Although I said lessons of history are treacherous that doesn’t mean the past doesn’t matter. As human beings, the past matters. You have to be careful about what you pick in the past, as we tend to pull whatever supports our position at the time. You have to pick the good things from the past and propagate those. I think Dutugemunu’s monument for Elara was a fine gesture, and there are other events in history we can pick. The past is important to understand the present. In the present, we have to let go of the past and work for the present and the future.

A large number of attendees joined the webinar from a number of countries including Sri Lanka, UAE, UK and US. APSL President Dr Mahesh De Silva opened the webinar and introduced the objectives and development activities of the Association of Professional Sri Lankans in the UK. APSL We Sri Lanka Lead, Gihantha Jayasinghe introduced the initiative and moderated the Q&A. APSL General Secretary, Gayani Senaratne concluded the webinar with a vote of thanks.

You can watch the full webinar featuring the talk by George R Willy here.

If you would like to receive information about future webinars organised by APSL We Sri Lanka, or support our activities, please write to us at wesrilanka@apsl.org.uk 

The Association of Professional Sri Lankans in the UK (APSL) initiated the We Sri Lanka project in 2010 to promote peaceful coexistence and sustainable development in Sri Lanka. We do this by,

  • Encouraging communities within the Sri Lankan diaspora in the UK to reconnect with each other.
  • Contributing to the post conflict rebuilding effort in Sri Lanka, helping to uplift lives of children and women in conflict affected areas, as well as extending our Solar Village programme to a poor, disadvantaged village in the Vanni to raise their income by generating renewable energy.
  • Supporting reconciliation, helping to overcome historic prejudices, build stronger understanding and trust, and shape a more inclusive Sri Lankan identity.