December 8, 2023

Reconciliation: A Prerequisite for Progress or a Remnant from the Past?

Sri Lanka Barometer

This blog summarises key discussion points from the SLB discussion forum held on 28 November 2023 at the University of Colombo, titled: Reconciliation: A Prerequisite for Progress or a Remnant from the Past? Applying an Interdisciplinary Lens to the Reconciliation Debate.

On 28 November 2023, the Sri Lanka Barometer (SLB) hosted a public discussion as a side event to the 9th International Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences (IConArts 2023), organised by the Faculty of Arts of the University of Colombo. In line with the theme of IConArts 2023 that focused on interdisciplinary approaches to research, the SLB discussion forum was titled Reconciliation: A Prerequisite for Progress or a Remnant from the Past? Applying an Interdisciplinary Lens to the Reconciliation Debate.

The discussion invited participants to reflect on the following questions: Almost 15 years after the war, is reconciliation still necessary for communities to heal, reconcile differences, repair trust and relationships, prosper, and live in dignity? Is it a base requirement to be able to sustainably address other issues in economic, social, and political life? Is the lack of reconciliation and social cohesion one of the root causes of many modern crises? Or are there more immediate and urgent problems that need attention, and that demand neglecting the reconciliation agenda? But can we move on without healing? Can we avoid current and future conflicts if we leave grievances from the past unaddressed?

Opening of the discussion

SLB Research Consultant Dr Natasha Palansuriya opened the discussion from a socio-political perspective. In the last five years, Sri Lanka faced multiple crises – the constitutional crisis in 2018, the Easter Sunday Attacks in 2019, the COVID pandemic in 2020/2021, and the unprecedented economic crisis in 2022. These crises exacerbated political and social tensions and increased economic hardships for many Sri Lankans across the country. For some, the crises and their effects showed the need for greater unity and solidarity between different communities in Sri Lanka; for others, they highlighted that it was time to move on from the reconciliation agenda and focus on other issues.

Mr Umesh Moramudali from the University of Colombo elaborated on different arguments from an economic perspective, showing that economic development alone is not enough when discrimination based on ethnicity is still prevalent and leads to unequal economic development and regional disparities.

Ms Nadiya Azmy from the Centre for Poverty Analysis brought in an environmental/ecological perspective, showing that conflicts over natural resources are exacerbated by underlying and unaddressed issues stemming from the war as well as communal tensions, particularly when there is a trust deficit between communities. She specifically highlighted the link between scarcity of resources and conflict.

After the opening statements, Dr Palansuriya invited the audience of around 60 participants to join the debate on the relevance of reconciliation while bringing in findings from the 2021 and 2022 SLB Public Opinion Surveys to stimulate the discussion and give insights into public opinion on the topic.

Key Discussion Points

1. Prioritising economic development over reconciliation

The hypothesis that economic development contributes to the wellbeing of all people was questioned by some and defended by others. For example, it was discussed that successive governments have prioritised economic development with the assumption that if there is economic growth, reconciliation will follow. However, it was observed that this has not led to tangible changes or helped alleviate grievances of the population. The North and East – as the areas most heavily affected by the war – are still the least developed, and conflict dynamics persist. A participant pointed out that this could be attributed to the top-down approach as opposed to a bottom-up approach that is taken with regard to both economic development and reconciliation, not considering the actual needs of the populace.

It was also argued that sustainable development does not come from consumption, investment, and production alone; other factors need to be considered such as reconciliation, health, education, etc.

The discussion also addressed that although SLB data shows that Sri Lankans feel relatively low levels of social trust, people seem to have this trust when it comes to economic transactions. Participants wondered whether this is because social issues are highly politicised, and whether some problems would be solved if ‘politics’ were removed from the equation.

With regard to the question posed in the title of the event, some paticipants answered with “definitely yes” – reconciliation is a prerequisite for progress – but they argued that progress is at the same time also a prerequisite for reconciliation.

2. Reconciliation as a concept

The audience pointed out that reconciliation is a highly politicised concept in Sri Lanka and questioned how this is measured by the SLB. The SLB team explained that through community consultations and expert discussions, the SLB identified 8 dimensions relevant to reconciliation in Sri Lanka – such as trust, identity, dealing with the past, justice, or accountable governance – that contextualise reconciliation in Sri Lanka and reflect people’s understanding, needs and expectations towards reconciliation.

A participant reflected that we seem to be dealing with a paradox when talking about reconciliation – because if the term reconciliation is so politicised, is it in itself a hindrance in working towards and ultimately achieving reconciliation?

Another participant applied a mathematical lens to reconciliation, explaining that in mathematics, 75% of the solution can be found within the problem. Therefore, the one who knows the problem will know the solution. Similarly, we need to really understand problems to move towards solutions and reconciliation. Some participants agreed, emphasising the need for more proactive instead of reactive responses – more need for a deeper understanding of the situation, and finding solutions based on this understanding. The SLB team emphasised that the SLB’s objective is to understand the issues inhibiting reconciliation based on evidence-based public opinion data and to bring this data into public discourse and policy making.  

One participant referred to a survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives before the war ended, in which Sri Lankans were asked whether they wanted to end the war, and virtually all respondents said yes. They were then asked if the war could be resolved through a federalised state structure, and an overwhelming majority of respondents said no. So the participant suggested that the SLB should ask people the following question: "What would you give up in order to achieve reconciliation?" As Sri Lanka has been talking about reconciliation for over a decade, the praticipant emphasised, it is important to make people think about what actually achieving it would require from them.

Participants also questioned what Sri Lanka is trying to reconcile, is it reconciliation between ethnic or religious communities, or in the present context, is it reconciliation of the “haves and have nots”, pointing to the worsening gaps between economic classes and the economic dimension of reconciliation.

A question was raised as to what role forgiveness plays for reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Can you forgive the past based on the present?

3. The underlying issue of language rights

The language dimension was discussed as a root cause of conflict and systemic issues that penetrate conflict. One audience member asked if ‘language’ would help to solve part of the problem. A lack of language rights was one of the root causes of the war and continues to be an issue because the needs pertaining to language rights have not been addressed.

The SLB Survey shows that language barriers are one of the main factors that prevent people from associating with other ethnic and religious communities.  

One participant questioned if language is really an issue in the presence of modern technology. However, this sentiment was strongly opposed by another participant who argued that language rights are very important, as people from all language groups should be equally able to access government services in the language of their choice. Additionally, most of the Sri Lankan population are rural poor who cannot access IT services or may be digitally illiterate.

A participant with a linguistics background added how language issues play out in multiple ways: 1) from a governance angle, Tamil speaking communities face persistent issues with accessing services in their mother-tongue which continues to foster grievances and resentment; 2) trusting a person can be strongly related to the nuances that come with communicating confidently in the same language, while misinterpretations are common if language abilities are low. Another aspect is 3) the significance of language in fostering a sense of identity and belonging. The ability to communicate in one's own language and be understood is crucial, as language is not just a means of communication; it is a dynamic and multifaceted aspect of human identity. The languages we speak, the way we use them, and the cultural context in which they are embedded all play a crucial role in shaping our individual and collective identities.


The discussion forum brought together voices from different disciplines and facilitated reflections on the question of if and how reconciliation plays a role in different academic disciplines – such as economics, ecology, or linguistics – as well as whether reconciliation is still relevant in the life of Sri Lankans today. The discussion fostered the exchange of ideas across disciplines and for the SLB team, stimulated the sentiment that in order to find solutions to contemporary problems and to move forward together, we might have to look outside of our own disciplines and explore relevant issues from different angles to find adequate responses.