Friday, 17 January 2003  
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People and peace

Our front page colour picture yesterday of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe participating in a special Thai Pongal pooja at Temple Trees on Wednesday, should have had more than mere symbolic import for most discerning readers. It could be said that the picture captured forcefully an emerging mood of communal reconciliation and harmony, following swiftly on the heels of the peace process set in motion by the State.

The news that scores of Northern residents had visited their friends and relations in the South for the purpose of participating in Thai Pongal festivities, for the first time in many years, suggests a process of national regeneration at particularly grass roots level, although we are never short of "spoilers" with a different mindset who are keen on creating divisions and exploiting them.

These reconciliatory gestures by the political leadership we consider particularly significant and impactful. Readers may recall with a sense of appreciation the Prime Minister's participation in Muslim ceremonies at the time of the Ramazan festival.

The process of national reconciliation, of course, doesn't end with these accommodative gestures, but they are very much part of efforts to build a new widely-inclusive polity or State in which all communities would be vibrant participants. After all, from the time of political independence, the Lankan State, in the eyes of many, has been associated with the majority community.

The peace process is essentially about making Sri Lanka a warm, accommodating home for all its communities and we are glad that the Prime Minister is showing the public, through his personal example, how this could be achieved although the unfolding road to peace is likely to be a long, rugged one.

However, Premier Wickremesinghe's reconciliatory gestures and the decision taken by the Government and the LTTE to welcome back to Sri Lanka over one million local refugees who were scattered across the globe by the 20 year war, are important facets of the peace process which has now entered an important phase. Peace, among other things, is also about giving back to the displaced and the refugees their homes and homesteads.

It is encouraging to note that agreement has been reached between the Government and the LTTE on how this would be achieved. First, the Internally Displaced Persons would be resettled, followed by the return to the country of some 64,000 refugees living in 111 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu. In all, 85,000 Lankan Tamil refugees are believed to be living in India.

That the Government and the LTTE have also reached agreement at a recent UNHCR-sponsored workshop to address the human rights and security concerns of returnees is also important. We don't believe that peace, in the fullest sense of the word, could be achieved in the absence of ways and means of ensuring the rights of the people - particularly those sections who have lost their livelihoods and homesteads - and there is likely to be widespread appreciation of the fact that the human rights dimension in the peace process is now receiving the attention of the main parties. In fact, an increasing dominance of the peace debate by human rights issues, is likely to be welcomed by the public.

For, peace can never be stabilized in an environment in which the people believe that their full rights have not been granted or provided for. Security concerns of the main parties could be expected to diminish to the degree to which the people of the conflict-affected areas are provided their fundamental rights and given an opportunity to lead contented lives. On the other hand, disaffected persons provide the seed bed for tension and discord. Giving priority to the needs of the people, therefore, is one of the surest paths to peace. We are glad that people are being brought to the centre of the peace process.

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