By Dharisha Bastians
Q: What brings you to Sri Lanka at this juncture?
A: Curiosity (laughs). I am interested in this part of the world. After this I will be travelling to Myanmar. Both are countries that have a difficult past. Here in Sri Lanka, it is conflict. In Myanmar it is years of military dictatorship. Coming from what used to be the communist part of Germany, I have a particular interest in how other countries in the world deal with a dictatorial past or a past in which there was war.
|Vice President of the German Parliament Wolfgang Thierse, whose three-day visit to Sri Lanka focused on promoting inter-faith dialogue and reconciliation, issued a call for Sri Lankan politicians and the State to oppose the radicalisation of religious groups that were threatening the peace between communities of people in the island. Thierse, who was the first East German to be president of the German Parliament or Bundestag following the country’s reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a strong activist against anti-Right wing extremism.
Speaking exclusively to the Daily FT, Thierse said he learned during his discussions with religious leaders here that the anti-Muslim campaign was being carried out by what he called a ‘radical minority’ and claimed it was a dangerous development that had to be contained.
Drawing from Germany’s experiences, both following Nazi rule and East Germany’s emergence from Communism, Thierse stressed that truth-seeking and making amends was a crucial aspect of the reconciliation process. He said he heard divergent opinions on the post-war reconciliation process from the Government, the Opposition and Tamil parties and civil society groups. The international community, the Vice President of the Bundestag said referring to the UNHRC resolution adopted last month, had an obligation to watch the situation here, and the observation was not motivated by “ill-will” towards Sri Lanka.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: Your agenda was focused on inter-faith dialogue. What kind of discussions did you have?
A: During my visit, I was able to meet the representatives of all four major religious communities in the country. I spoke with intellectuals and human rights activists. I am convinced that you can only achieve peace in the country if there is also peace between the religious communities. And there can only be peace in the world if there is peace between the large world religions. But this is something that has to be put into practice with concrete measures on the ground. Sri Lanka is a multi-religious country but there are quite obviously conflicts between religious communities. Those were the topics under discussion.
Q: Was the current anti-Muslim campaign in Sri Lanka one of the topics under discussion?
A: Yes, that was discussed. I asked specifically about this. I asked for explanations as to why Buddhism, this peaceful religion, is showing an aggressive militant side, not only in this country but in other neighbouring countries.
Q: What answers did you receive?
A: That this was a radical minority. That these groups are also possibly being institutionalised for political reasons. That it is something that is possibly in the interest of certain politicians. It may also be a certain kind of identity crisis within the Buddhist majority in this country. In other words, the feeling that there is an increasingly militant Islam here and that may be engendering fears within the Buddhist community. So this is a dangerous development and something has to be done about it.
Q: What do you think could be the impact of this religious tension on reconciliation?
A: I am not a prophet. And I can’t look into the Sri Lankan future. But it is important for the moderate forces of these religious communities to talk to one another. They have to avoid their religions being used to justify violence. What is also important is for politicians in Sri Lanka and for the Sri Lankan State, to oppose this radicalisation and these groups, even if it happens to be a radicalisation within the majority community.
Q: Four years since the end of the war, what have you learned during your visit about prospects for reconciliation in Sri Lanka?
A: I asked specifically about this when I met officials here because it’s only four years since the war ended. Over the course of my discussions, I received lots of completely different opposing answers. The opposition, the Tamil community and also human rights activists criticised the developments post-war. Many of them feel that the Tamil community is still being disadvantaged and the efforts towards reconciliation are considered insufficient. But representatives from the Governing party say the exact opposite. They say huge efforts have been made to improve infrastructure and that economic growth in the north and the east is far stronger than in the rest of the country. What this shows is that this is a hugely controversial issue in Sri Lanka and that reconciliation has not nearly been brought to a successful conclusion here.
Q: As you say, it has only been four years since the end of the war. The international community is urging Sri Lanka to pick up the pace of reconciliation process. But do you really think Sri Lanka has been given enough time?
A: There is a commission set up appointed by your President which made reconciliation proposals. Now these recommendations have to be implemented. The President and the Governing party have made a commitment to their own people and to the international community about the reconciliation process. It is not unfair to ask your President and your Government to follow through on these commitments.
Q: But are UN resolutions necessarily the way to go about it?
A: The international community has an obligation to look at what is happening here. Still, UN resolutions cannot replace national policies. Let me say this again, this is not about the international community criticising Sri Lanka. It was a Sri Lankan Commission that came up with recommendations to promote reconciliation after the war ended. And the Sri Lankan people are now waiting for these recommendations to be put into practice. Other countries are watching to see if these recommendations are being implemented. The international community does not do this out of ill-will, but this is normal practice between countries and peoples of the world.
Q: Drawing from German experience, both after World War II and Reunification, how important is it to deal with abuses of the past and make amends after conflict and division, or is it better to simply look forward?
A: Internal unity cannot be achieved solely through economic and social development. It also requires a truthful and honest way of confronting the past. If there has been so much hostility and so many victims, in such a situation it is better to seek the truth and find ways to compensate. It is important for the formerly warring parties and the ethnic and religious groups that confronted each other to start talking to one another. Reconciliation can only be successful if you talk to one another and you tell each other the story of what happened in your country and learn to respect differences.
Q: You were the first President of the German Parliament to hail from East Germany. After years of strife, how important is it for marginalised groups and minorities to play a role in the political mainstream?
A: It is very important. It is a part of what I would describe as a culture of recognition. I was the East German to hold one of the four highest constitutional offices of our country. That was also a symbolic recognition of equality between the East and West Germans following reunification.
Q: Do you see those same political prospects for the Tamil community in post-war Sri Lanka?
A: Tamil politicians have expressed their dissatisfaction and strongly criticised the developments of the past four years.
Q: What do you think is the greatest lesson Sri Lanka can extract from German experience of conflict and resolution?
A: Firstly, that the reconciliation process takes time and costs a lot of money. Secondly, that it can only succeed if it includes cultural recognition. If you respect each other, ensure there equal opportunity and you seek equality between the various parts of the population, then true reconciliation will be achieved.