Imagining peace

When all is said and done, more is said than done – Lou Holtz

Sri Lanka is doubly cursed.

We are cursed with those in high political office enslaved by parochialism and cannot vision sustainable, collaborative and holistic approaches to conflict resolution.

We are cursed again for not having the insight and capacity to imagine ways to mitigate the rise of violence.

While the first is obvious to a political analyst, the second predicament requires us to understand the ways through which peace can be constructed within a violent context. Understood this way, peacebuilding requires us to transcend social and political architectures that shackle us to violence. This in turn requires sagacity, wit and above all else, the imagination to see beyond the narrow imperatives of partisan politics to the the design of the larger constructs of reconciliation and peace.

It is important to begin a process of transcendence from violence as soon as possible. John Paul Lederach, a world renown peacebuilder, call this necessary transcendence in a peace process the moral imagination, which he defines as “the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist”. In Sri Lanka then, what we require is the statesmanship capable of seeing beyond short-term imperatives and embark upon urgent initiatives that transform the violent stakeholder positions into a creative friction that drives a peace process forward.

This creative friction is undeniably rare today. Violent conflict is once again a lived reality for those in the North-East. While the patience and restraint of the armed forces is commendable, it is important to realise that the well-springs of tolerance run dry in the face of continued and open terrorism. Colombo is once more gripped by the anxiety of suicide attacks, with office closures in suspected key targets such as the World Trade Centre a grim reminder of the macabre violence in the past.

What really can be done now?

Answers to this question require us to find new ways that arise from and speak to the imagination of the masses to communicate ideas related to peace negotiations, power sharing, non-violence and shared futures. The central thesis of a re-design of the peace process is to fully acknowledge the importance of participatory, multi-facted and multi-tier dialogues in support of peace and conflict transformation.

Those in favour of war must acknowledge the resulting impact on society – from the visceral gore of war to the obvious trauma of those affected by it. Those in favour of a negotiated settlement must enter the minds of those who believe in war and address their concerns of a peace process that is perceived as dividing the country. Those in government must encourage citizen interactions that discuss issues such as the cost of living, human security, the state of service delivery by the govenrment, access to services – that ultimately form the bedrock of opinion that undergirds a peace process. Donors need to give local organisations the flexibility to deal with a broad spectrum of stakeholders instead of preventing them from engaging tranformatively with arguments of those in support of terrorism. NGOs in turn need to address communities in their own language and give expression to the creativity that resides within these communities in support of peace and conflict transformation.

War in Sri Lanka is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Adept at identifying the shortcomings of a peace process, our future scenarios are overwhelmingly those that examine the dynamics of conflict but not of peace and what it would take to get to it in the midst of violence. We have yet to conduct a scenario building exercise that captures the imagination of the people at large, on the lines of such exercises in South Africa, Colombia and other post-conflict zones, that encourage public debate on how use the next 25 years to build political and social architectures that transcend present day problems through a metamorphosis that is driven from within.

What does visioning long term strategy entail? For the government, nothing short of an epiphanic moment of truth that the status quo will simply not bring about any lasting peace. For the LTTE, an equal epiphany – one that open their eyes to the pyrrhic victories that lie at the end of terrorism. For those in NGOs, the requirements to champion project that encourage collaborative problem solving through approaches that are holistic, rooted in and driven by the interests of communities on the ground. It also requires policy making NGOs, think-tanks, and those who work exclusively in within the domain of English, to ensure that their cutting edge thinking impregnates the minds of those in high political office.

The voices of a new generation need to be heard and respected. Unfortunately, that the youth are Sri Lanka’s future is another hackneyed term that is often used to cast a blind eye to the responsibility of those in positions of influence at present to ensure that there is something remotely resembling peace for future generations to build upon.

Beyond the forumalation of imaginative processes in support of peace, real action is also needed.

Action is needed to stop the killings in the North-East and hold the LTTE accountable for their incipient hypocrisy. Action is needed to urgently guide the government on ways through which it can draft constitutional formulations that creatively shape the parameters of compromise so as to create an interim political architectures that are responsive to the demands of peace and state reform. Action is needed to help NGOs re-double efforts at promoting regional and national dialogues in support of peace. Architectures that support information exchange are key in this endeavour, as is the need for holistic and collaborative approaches between NGOs as well as donors in Sri Lanka. Action is needed to revitalise a moribund business community to engage with peacebuilding – not just one-off exercises of holding hands, but far more pervasive and integrative approaches that strike home the profitability of peace for the many as opposed to the corrosive dividends of war for the few.

However, action alone is not enough.

Central to a new phase of peacebuilding that is attendent to the possible outbreak of violent conflict in the weeks ahead is the profound intellectual and moral courage required at the highest levels of polity and society that support imaginative approaches towards peace and reconciliation.

In sum, the imminence of war calls us to question the very existence of our role as peacebuilders. It is a time that is ripe for public dialogues on all the vaible options that Sri Lanka faces to avoid more bloodshed – a time for honest debate about how we as a nation will not allow this peace process to die.

Are we up to the task?

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