Building Inter-Ethnic ‘Social Capital’ for Reconciliation

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By Laksiri Fernando

“An association unites the energies of divergent minds and vigorously direct them toward a clearly indicated goal.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

The need is true even in the case of the recent student clash at the University of Jaffna. Both Sinhala and Tamil students in the Science Faculty sat side by side, perhaps in two groups, in lecture halls and in science labs, interacting with their teachers vertically. But they hardly had horizontal connections among themselves. As Pratheep Kunarthnam writing on the subject asked, “Can any of the authorities explain why except in one or two faculties Tamil-Sinhala students do not even smile at each other even when they walk past one another?” (Colombo Telegraph, 20 July 2016). He also raised the question of ‘deteriorating relations between Tamil and Muslim students.’

It is normal when people enter school, college, university or workplace, they tend to interact with their ‘own people,’ unless one or two ‘enlightened souls’ take a special effort to break the ice. In the case of Sri Lanka, most of these places are mono-cultural (not multi-cultural) spaces, most often purposely created that way. Even then they find reasons to group with their village or caste people. I am not touching on the gender issue here because of its ‘sex-complexity,’ although for a healthy society, healthy gender relations are necessary beyond marriage or partnership.

Even if we consider humans as utterly ‘autonomous’ individuals, they do need grouping, socialization, interaction and net-works. When this happens within their own group or ‘in-group,’ it is generally called ‘bonding.’That is how a society builds up ‘social capital’ for its survival and beyond. But in a multi-ethnic and a multi-religious society, there is something necessary beyond ‘bonding’ and towards ‘bridging.’ I am here borrowing simplified terminology and a conceptual framework from Robert Putnam and others on ‘social capital formation’ (“Making Democracy Work,” 1993).

A Conceptual Framework

How many ‘mono-ethnic’ societies or countries do we have today? The number is less than the number of our fingers. This is the reality in most countries that people have to face, whether you like it or not, and however much you argue about the predominance of your own group in your country or region. The building of ‘social capital’ is about networking for your personal and collective wellbeing, whether it is a funeral society, neighbourhood association, temple/church organization, drama society or lending association. This is important as building physical capital, financial capital or human capital. At a higher level, you may have to build student associations, women’s organizations, trade unions, human rights organizations, citizen’s committees or even more politically overt social justice movements. These are important for an efficient and an effective democratic society. This may be accepted without much controversy.

In general terms, the maturity of any democratic society could be judged or measured on the basis of the nature, the quality and the functions of these networks and associations which could also be called the civil society. If we wish a definition or an authoritative explanation on the matter, we can get it from Putnam, who was not the first to identify the phenomenon or process, but who was the first to elaborate, classify and use it as a criteria for assessing the maturity of democratic societies. As he said:

“Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). Some forms of social capital are, by choice or necessity, inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups. Examples of bonding social capital include ethnic fraternal organizations, church-based women’s reading groups, and fashionable country clubs. Other networks are outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages. Examples of bridging social capital include the civil rights movement, many youth service groups, and ecumenical religious organizations.” (“Bowling Alone,” 2000, p. 23).

In the above work, Putnam was talking about the American situation (‘The Collapse and Revival of American Community’ as the sub-title), and his examples might not be the best for Sri Lanka. He did emphasise the importance of ‘bridging’ over ‘bonding,’ however the importance of ‘bridging’ is much more than he talked about, particularly in the case of Sri Lanka or any transitional or developing multi-cultural society. I am using the expressions ‘transitional’ and ‘developing’ both in economic and political terms.

Present Context

As generally accepted, there has been a resurgence of the civil society organizations (or networking) in Sri Lanka that led to or accompanied by the democratic change in 2015. This was not exactly the case five ten years ago – first due to the bitter civil war and then the authoritarian regime that emerged after the end of the war defeating the LTTE. In heralding the authoritarian development, there was a different or a ‘primitive’ kind of social capital or networking that emerged based on the ‘kith and kin,’ ‘friendship alliances,’ ‘provincialism’ and ‘patron-client relations’ that in fact effectively overturned the democratic fabric. This is popularly called the Rajapaksa regime. Primitive kind of social capital emerging out of traditional sources is also something anticipated by the social capital theorists. There can be several other forms of ‘social capital’ that could be inimical to justice and fairness.

What made the democratic system barely saved was the resurrection of the nearly moribund civil society organizations (of lawyers, academics, professionals, journalists, students, citizens) and the emergence of new ones inspired largely by the international influence and civic consciousness. Two of the key objectives of the political change and thus the civil society were (1) the resurrection of democracy and (2) reconciliation of the ethnic conflict. I am not undermining the role of the political leaders or the political parties in the change, but emphasising the importance of the civil society organizations for the purpose of this article.

The above was possible because of the long standing traditions of civil society organizations and networks in Sri Lanka although they became disrupted and degenerated during the period of the war and even before. First to breakdown, due to the ethnic distancing and antagonisms of thepost-1956 period, were the processes of ‘bridging social capital’ in the country. Then came the disruption of even ‘bonding social capital’ primarily due to political interventions, war and demoralization of the civil society actors since 1983. The new forms in fact had emerged. Jonathan Goodhand, Hulme and Lewer (2000) have investigated some of the transformations in different zones.

Even if we now assume – based on the democratic changes of the last year (2015), and still the vibrant activities of some of the organizations -that ‘bonding social capital’ is on track again, this article argues that ‘bridging social capital’ is still lagging behind which is much more important for the objectives of both ‘resurrection of democracy’ and ‘building reconciliation’ in the country.

Important Organizations

It might not be too arbitrary to identify the following organizations playing a major role in the recent democratic change in the country. They are listed in the alphabetical order.

Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL)
Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA)
Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA)
Free Media Movement (FMM)
National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ)
National Peace Council (NPC)
People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL)
Purawesi Balaya (People’s Power)

Among them, while the NMSJ and the People’s Power are new, or rather spontaneous, the others have had fairly a long standing existence in the country. The question which needs to be posed here however is whether they are only for ‘bonding’ or whether they have an objective for ‘bridging.’ ‘Bonding’ and ‘bridging’ or ‘bonding social capital’ and ‘bridging social capital’ are two different things particularly in terms of reconciliation after a conflict or war. While ‘boding’ tends to create networks within an in-group – within a particular ethnicity in this case – ‘bridging’ particularly means conscious efforts to transcend these barriers as a primary objective. No need to overemphasize such a need in Sri Lanka’s context today, whether in the South, East or the North.

A quick glance at the composition of the office bearers or the active leaders of the above organizations reveal that the CPA and the NPC undoubtedly have this ‘bridging’ quality at least at the decision making level. But both organizations are primarily located in Colombo, of course playing an advocacy (vertical) role. The BASL gives a symbolic prominence for the ‘other ethnicity’ and its office bearers understandably are elected ones. The PAFFREL is fairly represented in the Board of Directors but not in the Secretariat.

Being a past member, I can be more critical of the situation of FUTA only having a Vice-President at present from Jaffna! There cannot be any doubt that the academics could play an active role in ‘bridging social capital’ in theoretical terms, and through academic solidarity and cooperation. One way might be to resurrect the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) also for Reconciliation (UTHR&R) island wide. The FMM is also primarily in the form of bonding. While the potential of both the NMSJ and the Peoples’ Power (Purawesi Balaya) is so enormous in creating social capital in the country, transcending ethnic and religious divide, the present situation is almost completely confined to ‘bonding.’

Another important organization is the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG), although its role in recent political change in practical terms is not readily verifiable (at least for me). However it has noble objectives very much similar to building ‘social capital’ even with a People Empowerment Programme (PEP).

Some Obstacles

While most of the obstacles that the civil society organizations are facing in moving beyond ‘bonding’ towards ‘bridging’ can be historical, there are certain ideological as well as practical reasons for the situation. When new organizations like the NMSJ or the Peoples Power are formed, it may be natural for them to begin within their known terrain. However, there should be some conscious efforts to move beyond. The past historical developments in the country, the state policies, terrorism and war have created enormous divisions even among the academics, professionals and social activists. There are unconscious inhibitions preventing joint work. These may be higher among the Tamils and the Muslims.

A seemingly ideological reason for the situation seems to be that most of the organizations that recently sprung to oppose authoritarianism, or to bargain based on their demands, whether FUTA, NMSJ or Peoples Power, work on vertical lines trying to influence the new government and the leaders. Their demands may transcend ethnic or religious lines. They may also be fully committed to reconciliation in theoretical terms. But their ‘vertical’ approach trying mainly to ‘influence the government’ not only betray the purpose but also represents a compartmentalized elitism unless they venture to build most necessary ‘bridging social capital’ in the country. Another mindboggling question is ‘why the hell’ they don’t coordinate each other and work together in achieving their seemingly similar objectives!

The task of building reconciliation is multi-faceted and require different track level interventions. The task of ‘bridging social capital’ is a task primarily for the civil society. It cannot be expected from the political leaders. Political leaders of any country are strange animals. They changes ‘colour’after powerlike chameleons. The formation of ‘bridging social capital’ in society entails not only networking or forming multi-ethnic organizations. It is also a task of education, attitudinal change and building necessary skills.

One practical difficulty, among others, is the language barrier between the Sinhala speakersand the Tamil speakers. The promotion of English as the link language has not progressed well even in university education. However, to reach the broader sections of the people, the civil society organizations have to work both in Sinhala and Tamil, apart from English. This should be followed as a cardinal principle. That is the only way to attract ‘the other’ and create conditions for ‘bridging,’ whether your present base is Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim. This is something terribly lacking in the present popular organizations.

Given the fact that most or almost all prominent organizations are Colombo based, and the emergence of such organizations in Jaffna or in the North/Eastwere largely inhibited due to the war devastation, thefailure of the present organizations to work in Tamil has been a major setback for ‘bridging social capital’ formation even after a democratic change last year. This is a major obstacle for ethnic reconciliation in the country as at present. The formation of social capital in Sri Lanka, linked to economy and polity and also in the context of ethnic conflict, is undoubtedly an area that needs new research by young academics.

Some Preliminary References

1. Goodhand, Jonathan et al. 2000. “Social Capital and the Political Economy of Violence: A Case Study of Sri Lanka.”Disasters 24 (4).
2. Halpern, David. 2005. “Social Capital.” Polity Press.
3. Putnam, Robert et al. 1993. “Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy.” Princeton.
4. Putnam, Robert. 2000. “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” Simmon & Schuster.
5. Putnam, Robert (Ed.). 2002. “Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society.” Oxford.

(There is another known study on a different dimension on Sri Lanka by Uphoff, N. and C. M. Wijayaratna. 2000. “Demonstrated Benefits from Social Capital: The Productivity of Farmer Organizations in Gal Oya, Sri Lanka.” World Development 28)

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