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Sunday, 18 January 2015

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Government Gazette

Call for unity and reconciliation

If there is one central theme that stood out from the first few days of the Maithripala Sirisena Presidency, it is unity and reconciliation. The last regime squandered every opportunity that came its way to achieve these noble objectives and as a result, alienated most Lankans who wished to see a truly united Sri Lanka.

In fact, in his very first address to the Nation from the precincts of the Sacred Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, President Maithripala Sirisena made an impassioned plea to all political parties in and out of Parliament to join him to achieve peace and prosperity in Mother Lanka. We are already seeing the results of this appeal with many political and civil society figures transcending party barriers to support the President's 100 days program.

The Cabinet that was appointed last week also reflects the multi-ethnic dimension of our nation with ministers from all communities coming together with the express purpose of developing the country. The SLFP, itself, a party that has always stood for religious and ethnic amity, is now fully backing President Sirisena, who was also elected Party President.

This is a marked departure from the divisive politics that had caused enormous harm to Sri Lanka over the years. President Sirisena entered the polls with the backing of the broadest socio-political alliance in this country since 1948.

Apart from the UNP and sections of the SLFP, it contained over 40 political parties and movements including the NMSJ, JHU, DP, TNA, SLMC, ACMC and the JVP extended its support through a separate campaign which educated voters on the perils of dictatorship. Now it is the turn of all other political parties and groups to heed this clarion call and extend their fullest support to the President and his team to realise the goal of building a prosperous Sri Lanka.

Reconciliation was also the prominent theme the other most significant event of last week- the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis to Sri Lanka. It was not only Catholics that turned out in large numbers to greet him - people from all faiths and all walks of life joined in welcoming and listening to him. In all his speeches and sermons delivered at various locations in the island including the Galle Face Green and Madhu shrine in the North, he called upon the faithful and all others in Sri Lanka to follow the words of Jesus in co-existing peacefully in this small island.

"For many years the people of this country have been victims of civil strife and violence. What is needed now is healing and unity, not further conflict and division. The fostering of healing and unity is a noble task incumbent upon all those who have at heart the good of the nation," Pope Francis told the Inter-religious meeting held at the BMICH.

The Pope told the ceremony at the Bandaranaike International Airport to welcome him, that "the inability to reconcile differences and disagreements, whether old or new, has given rise to ethnic and religious tensions, frequently accompanied by outbreaks of violence. Sri Lanka for many years knew the horrors of civil strife, and is now seeking to consolidate peace and to heal the scars of those years.

It is no easy task to overcome the bitter legacy of injustices, hostility and mistrust left by the conflict. It can only be done by overcoming evil with good and by cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace.

The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity. Whenever people listen to one another humbly and openly, their shared values and aspirations become all the more apparent. Diversity is no longer seen as a threat, but as a source of enrichment. The path to justice, reconciliation and social harmony becomes all the more clearly seen."

Welcoming Pope Francis, President Sirisena stressed the need to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation. "Your visit to Sri Lanka is of special significance, as my government is progressing on promoting dialogue and reconciliation among people, as a means of consolidating the peace dividend. We are a people who believe in religious tolerance and co-existence based on our centuries-old spiritual heritage. The significant contribution that Your Holiness is making to bring about peace and reconciliation among nations and communities is gratifying, and this visit will contribute to Sri Lanka's domestic efforts."

These are inspiring words indeed. The time has now dawned to think of ourselves as Sri Lankans, cutting across all barriers. Even at this election, some observers referred to Sinhala votes, Tamil votes, Muslim votes and Christian votes. This is an affront to the very multi-cultural fabric that binds our nation together. We have never heard Indians or Singaporeans describing elections in this manner. We must overcome this stone-age tribal mentality.

Sri Lankans elected a new President, not Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or Hindus. It was Sri Lankans from far-flung areas who voted for Maithripala Sirisena, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the other 17 candidates. It is thus heartening to hear President Sirisena dwelling on the need to achieve religious and ethnic reconciliation in our motherland scarred by a three-decade old conflict. If we can forge a truly Sri Lankan identity in the next few years that will perhaps be the biggest achievement of President Sirisena. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) has recommended many steps that can lay a firm foundation for this endeavour.

Reconciliation cannot be a strictly local exercise. Given the globalised outlook of international geopolitics, it is vital to engage constructively with some of the nations that we have been at loggerheads with.

One of the most important points made by the President in his address in his first address to the Nation was the dire need to improve the country's international image and create a better foreign service. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has lost many friends in the international arena due to the mismanagement of the Foreign Service and certain wrong attitudes adopted by the previous regime. We can no longer live in isolation and steps must be taken to cultivate good relations with all countries. It is especially important to mend our relations with the West.

It is also vital to tell all Sri Lankans everywhere in the world to come back and see for themselves the efforts being made to foster harmony in their island. There are misguided elements in the Tamil diaspora who still cling on to the impractical dream of a so-called Tamil Eelam which will never materialise. All local representatives of the Tamil community have eschewed this concept in any case.

With a new Government in place that is firmly committed to protecting all communities, they too have an opportunity to shed their stereotypical thinking and return to the motherland to serve especially the Northern community emerging out of the darkest chapter in Sri Lanka's history.

As the President has rightly pointed out in a recent speech, the first step to reconciliation is building a cultured human being who upholds moral values. We may have lost sight of this aspect in the relentless pursuit of material gains.

If all of us become good human beings, a just, righteous society will be within easy reach. We must embrace peace and brotherhood. This will help build a new Sri Lanka which will be second to none in the world.

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