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May 18 Academy Reflections

Memories, Dialogues, and Reconciliation

Evelyn Vandhana, Sri Lanka
Ms. Evelyn is the Executive Director of the Training Nest, a grassroots organization based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She engages in research, advocacy and training, in the areas of human rights, migration and refugees, women leadership, and journalism. As a creative writer, she has authored a few books.
“We have borne the greatest pains of the prolonged conflict;
It is not the material reparation that we want;
we need to erase this agony;
the harsh memories which haunt us every day.”
- A mother from the northern region of Sri Lanka (Field Interview, 2018).

Last September, I attended this year’s May 18 Academy organized by May 18 Memorial Foundation. Many things were discussed during the two-week-long program. In this reflective piece, I will discuss about the efforts of South Korea on truth and reconciliation process with its relevance to Sri Lanka.

Truth and Reconciliation in South Korea

The South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established in 2005, has investigated the brutalities of past autocrats and governments, including the dictators from the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. The civilians and the other actors in Gwangju not only struggled to revive democracy but also engaged to uphold it for the past 38 years. This is a pragmatic learning many countries in Asia could follow.

The May 18 National Cemetery, Portrait Enshrinement Tower, Seungmoru, and other memorial spaces are diverse approaches and initiatives carried out to sustain the memories of those who died or lost their relatives and friends during the Uprising.

Aside from May 18 Uprising of Gwangju, the 4.3 Uprising of Jeju Island incident explains the revolt of the civilians against government forces, which resulted in the purge of thousands of locals and damage to settlements. Today, it is remarkable to see how the government of South Korea has honored the dead, with the establishment of the Jeju Peace Park, the museum, the children’s cemetery, and the sculptures.

Even though burial grounds and monuments remind people of the past atrocities, memories are important for dialogues through which the minds of victims and of the perpetrators could be approached to share and exchange grievances. “Truth and justice are not separate to reconciliation: they are key parts of it,” (Bloomfield et al. 2003). Hence, for the victims to reconcile, it is important that the truth is spoken out. Dialogues promote social inclusion through arousing harsh memories of violence and violations, and helps towards reconciling through understanding of the root causes of the negative occurrences in history.

Though many neighbouring countries of South Korea have failed to create a supportive reconciliation process, South Korea becomes a moral platform to learn about keeping remembrance and memories, with a genuine paradigm for reconciliation. The obsession of past memories from struggles and the losses is quite visible in South Korea - especially in Gwangju in spite of it being extremely harsh and sorrowful.

A recurrent reminder of the uprising and democracy is the Gwangju Biennale. This biennial event constantly recaps the incidents from 1980 and thereafter, and expresses the memories and histories, and the loss and trauma of the people of Gwangju involved in the struggle. According to Kim Sun-jung, President of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, “the biennale reminds the viewer that the act of forgetting and remembering can simultaneously form and break down barriers—psychological, emotional, and perhaps even physical.”1

While South Korea teach about keeping memories, and about continuous dialogues for reconciling and healing, Sri Lanka even today with all its possible avenues, does not comprehend the importance of a genuine and effective reconciliation process towards forgiving and healing. Lack of affirmative actions, random quick services for the victimized communities, and slow and bureaucratic systems, has worsened the situation in Sri Lanka. With the new emergence of faith-based ideologies, a new conflict is arising, harming, and damaging the possible avenues of durable peace in the country.

Hence, the importance of a sustaining reconciliation process through memories and dialogues is crucial for Sri Lanka. As per Bloomfield et al. (2003), reconciliation is vital for societies that have experienced an ethno-political conflict and these conflicts destroy trust and create grievances and mental trauma within the ethnic groups.

Sri Lankan Case of Ongoing Reconciliation

The three-decade armed conflict in Sri Lanka that roots back to the colonial era, and place between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the government of Sri Lanka, contributed to a major loss of lives, possessions, and economy; shattering the peace of people, violation of fundamental human rights, creating hundreds thousands of refugees around the world and over a million of internally displaced, with a thousand more disappeared, came to a halt on the 18th of May 2009 through a military solution.

The natural strength of resilience forced the affected communities to move on with their lives searching for new ways of survival. Yet, their extreme struggles for material needs concealed the requirement for psychological healing. Consequently, the trauma from the past exacerbated, leading to ill health conditions and extreme feelings of hate and revenge, involving them further into violent acts.

When a person is hurt, taking time to forgive is helpful. But when a victim is left with the hurtful feeling for long, he or she tends to forget the offense, yet the hurt feeling remains within (Jankeletch, 1967). Forgiving releases pain, but forgetting without forgiveness suppresses the pain only for a short time, which again erupts on a given situation. Thus, it is important to have a reconciliation process in all types of conflicts with no unaccepted and unreasonable delay.

Reconciliation does not require forgetting, forgiving, or loving one another. Alternatively, it is a societal process that involves mutual acknowledgment of past suffering and the changing of destructive attitudes and behaviour into constructive relationships toward sustainable peace. Reconciliation process consists of various stages like assuring of security, replacing of mistrust by trust and confidence, increasing the willingness of victims to listen to offenders, and allowing offenders to understand the feelings of anger and bitterness of those suffered.

Yet in Sri Lanka, though the outwardly visible war ceased with the last bullet almost a decade ago, the invisible battle inside the victims continues to be active. The year 2009 was part of the decade (2005 – 2015) wherein the citizens had no freedom to exercise freedom of expression and right to information. The tyrannical actions of the government increased the fear and trauma, typically for the victims of war.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was established in 2010 as a domestic mechanism with a mandate to investigate the facts and circumstances which led to the failure of the ceasefire agreement from 27th February 2002 to the end of armed conflict in 19th May 2009. Its mandates were to find out the lessons learned from the past events for the institutional, administrative, and legislative measures to be taken in order to prevent any recurrence of such concerns in the future, and to further promote national unity and reconciliation among all communities. The first report was submitted to the President on 15th November 2011. The Commission made several recommendations to reform relevant laws and policy framework, and to expedite special programmes and administrative actions to address immediate, intermediate and underlying causes of the conflict.

Following the LLRC report, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in March 2012, passed a resolution calling on the government to implement the recommendations of the LLRC. Again in 2013, the UNHRC adopted the second resolution entitled ‘Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka’.

The government prepared the National Plan of Action to implement the recommendations of the LLRC, which was approved by the cabinet in July 2012. A year later, the government added 53 recommendations made by the LLRC to LLRC Action Plan. Even if there is a remarkable gap between the LLRC and the LLRC Action Plan, it is hard to see the effective implementation of the latter.

Even though the LLRC and the LLRC Action Plan existed, genuine efforts to touch on past memories of concerned groups, engage them in dialogues and heal their traumatized minds through social and structural means was missing. The LLRC did not make arrangements to sit the conflicted communities together for remembering and sharing the dark memories, listening to stories of the other, and understanding the underlying cause for the conflict and negative behaviours of those who strived. Instead of opportunities given for reconciling, the different government and non-government organizations carried out exposure visits for youths, which involved only students from some universities that ended up as an excursion, and not as a means to serve the core purpose. Though several attempts to create community dialogues facilitating for the means of expressions, including art and writing, were made, these did not reach out to the ‘actual affected’ people.

Beginning from 2010, the government and the Sri Lankan Security Forces, built monuments to commemorate May 18, 2009 and to remember the Government Armed Forces who fought and died in the battle of that year. These monuments were established on the same land resided by Northern Tamils; thousands of Tamil civilians and militants lost their lives during the thirty years’ war. There were no tombstones or memorials that depicted the dead Tamils or their relatives from the Tamil militant groups.

Instead of being a means for mourning, reconciling, and healing, the government memorial establishments were put up for commemorations to remember the government’s victory during the last day of the war. While the government commemorated this day, thousands of Tamils around the world mourned for the loss of their loved ones.

A resident of Northern Sri Lankan city of Jaffna shared his griefs about the government’s commemoration:
“We couldn’t bury our own dead people. Many bodies were left behind, and the vultures ate their flesh; we ran for life. Even the years following 2009, we were afraid to perform the rituals, as we would be labeled as ‘supporters of the terrorists’. Hence we buried our griefs within us, and struggled to exist. After the new government in 2016 restrictions have been withdrawn, and we have public gatherings to remember our loved ones. But there is always surveillance from the authorities, and we are still not able to commemorate freely; we don’t even have a memorial place or cemetery we could visit and honor the dead.” (Field Interview, October 2018)

Upon the instructions of the government, the military demolished all war memorials and graveyards that belonged to the Tamil militants and civilians, and its place, erected their military victory monuments.

Even though the Tamil militants showed brutality during the latter stages of their rule by using their own Tamil people as hostages, most of the families in Jaffna and Vanni regions have at least one close relative who died during the war. Destroying of the burial grounds situated in their land of origin is an unbearable tragedy to the Tamils and thus increased their bitter feelings.


Reconciliation is a comprehensive process of bringing justice for conflicting parties, as well as to the victims and witnesses, through creating peace within the individuals and healing their traumatized minds. Reconciliation process is expected to eliminate the causes of conflict in a democratic manner, positively change the social values of conflicted parties, and strengthen the state institutions to ensure sustainable democracy and social justice. Durable peace requires social and structural arrangements and assistance; in other words, we need to shift from negative peace which is the absence of conflict to positive peace to address the root causes of conflicts to prevent its recurrence. Thus, reconciliation is a prerequisite for durable peace, human rights, and sustainable development of a country.

“When a deep injury is done to us,
we never recover until we forgive.
‘It is not forgive and forget’ as
if nothing wrong had ever happened,
but ‘forgive and go forward’,
building on the mistakes of the past,
and the energy generated by reconciliation,
to create a new future”
– Alan Paton; South African author.


Jankelevitch V. (2005). Forgiveness. (Kelley, A.) Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1967)
Bloomfield, D., Barnes, T., and Huyse, L. (2003). Reconciliation after Violent Conflict: A Handbook. Stockholm, Sweden: International Assistance for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
Movius, L. (2018, October 19). Gwangju Biennale’s 11 curators delve into South Korea’s hidden traumas. The Art Newspaper, Retrieved from.

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