Peacebuilding through reconciliation is an approach to conflict resolution taken by the parties to a conflict after a settlement. Years of antagonism and hatred may lie buried in a conflict. In some situations, the case may be like a regime that had inflicted cruelties on its own population like Nazi Germany or South Africa in the twentieth century. In some others, like the settler colonies of Australia, United States of America, and Canada, indigenous populations were traumatised as they were forcefully assimilated into the ideas upheld by the settlers. In 1998, the Canadian Government formally apologized to its 1.3 million indigenous people for 150 years of what Indian groups have charged were paternalistic assistance programs and racist schools that devastated their communities as any war or disease. Along with the formal apology, the Government promised to establish a $245 million ”healing fund” for the thousands of Indians who were taken from their home. (New York Times, 1998). Other settler colonial states have tried similar approaches to resolve issues that concern indigenous populations.
Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister tendered a public apology in 2008 for the crimes committed against the aboriginals of the country. In 2021, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a reparations fund. Recognising the bond between healing, dignity and wellbeing, he offered to pay reparations to the “Stolen Generations” because of Australia’s forced policy of assimilation and took responsibility for the same. (Al Jazeera, 2021)
A debate is unfolding in the United States of America after the mobilisation of the Black Lives Matter movement and growing atrocities against the Black community. There have been calls made for the setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the likes of South African TRC. The removal of confederate monuments sparked violence in the USA given its complicated history of racism and slavery. Schools began debating race and history in schools. Governors in the USA ordered Confederate monuments to be brought down, and corporations like Walmart announced that it would stop selling Confederate memorabilia. Debates on the confederate monuments intensified after nine black churchgoers were massacred in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
As recently as 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Congress woman, referred to migrant detention camps at the U.S. border as concentration camps. A similar complicated relationship exists with the indigenous community in the USA given its history of settler colonialism. White America’s inability to face up to its past, and to the crimes it has committed against African Americans and Native Americans might be the reason for much of the backlash.
Past lies heavily on the present. In South Asia, India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar have witnessed crimes against ethnic religious minorities on the rise. All the above-mentioned states were ruled by the British and have been fiercely anti-colonial. The non-violent nature of the majority religions make their followers claim to be peace loving and against violence of any form. Yet, India has seen an increase in hate crimes and hate speeches against the Muslim community. Communal violence has become a regular feature in Indian politics since the Bhagalpur riots in Uttar Pradesh. The Gujarat communal pogrom in 2002 is the worst example of a massacre of members of a community. The Sri Krishna Commission set up to investigate the killings gave a clean chit to the political leadership in the state. The Special Investigation Team set up by the Gujarat government has also given a clean chit to the political party that was in power during the violence in the state. After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rise to the national level with the election of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi there has been no respite from hate speeches and instigation of violence. Despite the widespread fact of state complicity, there continues to be a stubborn denial on the part of the middle classes and political leadership. (Mander, 2007). There is no attempt made by the leadership for a political reconciliation of the two warring communities. There exists fear that any move of that nature might alienate the Sangh Parivar and the ruling party might lose Hindu votes. Commendable efforts to bring the communities together have been attempted by private initiatives and religious groups throughout the state. One such example is the Karawan e Mohabat. However, there is denial though complicity is a well-known fact in the violence.
War crimes and crimes against humanity during Eelam War IV in Sri Lanka are well documented . International Crisis Group (2010) reported that torture and shelling, enforced disappearances had resulted in civilian casualties. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the Sri Lankan government after its victory in Eelam War IV was inadequate in seeking the redressal of the grievances of the victims. There is no acceptance of the fact that if international humanitarian law would have been upheld, casualties could have been avoided. After their widely claimed victory over terrorism, the Sri Lankan way of fighting terrorism attracted much attention in other countries as a model to emulate! However, no mention of the Tamil grievances or post conflict reconstruction became real in the State. There was no acceptance of the damage done to the Sri Lankan Tamils during this conflict. Most of the Reconciliation initiatives were taken by the international global community to rebuild lives after the War ended.
Myanmar is a classic case of the lack of courage shown by the leaders who fought for democracy in the country for decades. The military junta took power overthrowing the democratically elected government in the years after Burma’s independence from Britain. In 2016, Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was elected to office amidst great hopes for a changed Myanmar. Violence broke out between the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Myanmar military during a counter-insurgency operation. In the clashes that ensued, the Myanmar Army burnt villages with a “genocidal intent” that led to millions of Rohingyas fleeing their homes and taking refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh. (Statement of UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee). In her numerous interviews, Aung San Suu Kyi stuck to her position that fear and anger exists on both sides, referring to the Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists. This led to calls for the Nobel Peace Prize to be withdrawn. The world was outraged at her statements about the Rakhine Buddhists whom she sought to defend brushing aside years of discrimination and denial of citizenship to the Rohingyas. (The Guardian, 2018)
National historians in these countries are content to stop at exposing the consequences of British rule as a reason for their current problems. Colonialism is a widely researched topic around universities in the world. Myanmar, India, and Sri Lanka are examples in South Asia which have seen internecine tensions among ethnic groups in the past decade which may have roots in colonialism. However, the commissions and committees appointed to investigate violent events indicate that no genuine reconciliation measures were attempted. What could be the reason? The leadership lacks courage to admit to mistakes and violence by the majority who have elected them to power. More than a decade after communal violence had wrecked Gujarat that killed three thousand people, no genuine reconciliatory measures have been taken up. Most of the leaders charged with inciting communal hatred are free and victims still languish in relief camps. (Amnesty, 2012).
The German example is a long, complicated path and a historic achievement. The first step in dealing with the past was acknowledgement, of society recognizing the truth of what happened. Courage is all about acceptance of error. Susan Neiman (2019) says “Reconciliation is a source of strength and not weakness. That really helps us to reckon with the past.” In her book Learning from the Germans, she calls America’s fixation on the Holocaust “a form of displacement for what we don’t want to know about our own national crimes.” She makes the point that during her field visit to Germany, she met people who said, “We are ashamed and upset about our parents being Nazis”. How did this happen? The most important was “civil engagement” by the German public, beginning in the nineteen-sixties. This led to the acceptance and resolve to correct historical injustices like complicity in the Nazi crimes. This process of uncovering the past and talking about it was started by German leaders starting with Willy Brandt. Societies struggling with reconciliation and not able to bring about any genuine healing among communities are those who make excuses for it and think of themselves as innocent victims. South Asian leaders might do well by learning from the Germans, the Canadians and the Australians.
International Crisis Group (2010): “War Crimes in Sri Lanka”, 17 May, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/south-asia/sri-lanka/191- war-crimes-in-sri-lanka.aspx, viewed on 7 June 2022.
Susan Neiman (2019), Race and the Memory of Evil (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York)
Harsh Mander (2007) Living in Times of Fear and Hate, Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007