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An object lesson in archaeological conservation

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By ROHANA R. WASALA

“Buvaneka Hotel? I wanted to renovate the place when I was Secretary to the Urban Development Authority, but the owner refused to give it up for renovation.”

– An amused President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to some young men who asked him, during his campaign tour of  the Kurunegala district on July 27, why he kept silent when ‘our kingdom’ was bulldozed.

The demolition of a part of a building that is claimed to be an archaeological site at Kurunegala on the night of July 14, 2020  caused quite a furore, with the opposition seizing the opportunity offered by the surreptitious operation to sling mud at the government. Why the mayor had to do it in the night in such a hurry is yet to be explained, though. In any case, the controversy ignited manna from heaven for the opposition, which is starved of a proper platform for fighting the election. Aside from this, the main opposition speakers are providing much needed comic relief for the corona-fears-hit audiences across the country through their empty campaign speeches. They have suddenly become champion protectors of the country’s cultural heritage. But it is hardly likely that the senior SLPP leaders would have allowed this act of (apparently accidental) vandalism to be committed, had they had an inkling of it beforehand, particularly in this run-up-to one of the most decisive general elections  held in the country.

Be that as it may, the episode has drawn the attention of all Sri Lankans to a chronic issue that is directly connected with the national security and the political stability of the Sri Lankan state: The deliberate destruction/vandalizing/encroachment of Sri Lanka’s archaeological sites by treasure hunters and politically motivated individuals. The protection, through preservation and conservation, of the country’s rich ancient cultural heritage is a national responsibility that no government can ignore. There are six main parties who are bound to take an interest in this issue; they are, to list them at random: Buddhist monks, the general public, historians and archaeologists, relevant state officials, politicians in general, and the government including the prime minister and the executive president.

The president laughed when the young men queried him about the Kurunegala affair because he knew that the name ‘Buvaneka’ had been dragged into it by interested parties to embarrass the government (by highlighting its supposed antiquity). With that answer, he pricked the balloon of false propaganda of the opposition. But there is no doubt that he takes the problem that underlies the whole affair seriously. It is very clear that, taken out of that context, it is no laughing matter, though some people may try to make it out to be something trivial and  funny. In fact, the enemies of the country want to represent even the general election as a form of meaningless theatrical entertainment, which in reality this time is the moment of truth for the whole national electorate.

Incidentally, there are those who are ever ready to attack the recorded history of the Sinhalese in their unique homeland as mere fiction. But knowledgeable local and foreign scholars, from colonial times to the present, have increasingly accepted it as something well authenticated by carefully composed ancient chronicles and orally transmitted folk traditions, both supported by epigraphical evidence and archaeological remains found across the length and breadth of the island. Ill-informed cynics are making the public outrage caused by the thoughtless act a pretext for taking a playful dig at those who are speaking up for safeguarding the rights of the variously besieged majority community. It is a different matter that there are a few political opportunists, fakes, and rogues among them as there are among members of other communities. Recent  evidence unearthed by archaeologists (some of them from foreign universities) has proved that a primitive people, who had nevertheless reached a relatively advanced stage of civilization, had inhabited the central mountainous region of the island at least some four and a half thousand years ago, which hints at the fact that the history of the Sinhalese is much older than the recorded 2500 years. The Ravana story may be a myth, but it is quite possible that it is based on a regal ancestor of the Sinhalese who fought invasions from abroad, thousands years before the time that the Mahavamsa began. Some amateur ‘archaeologists’ in the form of YouTubers, apparently none of them with any expertise in the most difficult domain of archaeology, at various levels of commitment to the discovery of the scientific truth from one hundred percent to zero percent, are turning out videos these days about real or imagined archaeological sites. Some of them have published, for example, pictures of mysterious symbolic shapes carved on a rock in a hardly accessible place, and a drawing of what looks like a dinosaur on another rock face; images worthy of being included in Erich Von Daniken’s 1968 classic ‘Chariots of the Gods’. A responsible future government must turn its attention to this so-called ‘Ravana’ aspect of Sri Lanka’s pre-history and bring it under the purview of proper archaeological study. The nation can exploit its potential for the benefit of the country in terms of its economy through the promotion of tourism, in addition to contributing to the global store of human knowledge. Equally important, it will serve to ensure the future survival of the Sinhalese as a race with their unique historical identity. So, the uproar raised about the Kurunegala incident, by both genuine and mischief-making protestors, is not something to be dismissed with a laugh.

There cannot be any dispute about the fact that the structure at the place in question is of archaeological value, though the mayor of Kurunegala, the first citizen of the city, is unaware of it. Ignorance is no excuse for a person who holds such a responsible position. However, the Adhikarana Sanga Nayake Thera of Vayamba,  at a meeting of the Bauddha Upadeshaka Sabhava with the President (July 25) said that the place in question was not an archaeological site, and that it was a big lie to say that it was. He said that there was no ‘raja sabha mandapaya’ (a royal assembly hall) belonging to king Bhuvanekabahu II at that place. In his detailed explanation of its recent history of about twenty years, he described how the premises was leased out by the municipal council during that period and was enlarged and used for various commercial purposes such as running a wine shop,a  restaurant, a barber shop, and even for renting out rooms for couples. It was implied that the enlargement of the building by adding rooms, etc was done without proper official authorization. But the monk admitted that the old structure that  originally stood there, and apparently still stands there partly damaged or tampered with, was one built more than one hundred years ago, which means that the place should be considered an  archaeological site. An archaeologist who was seen at  the meeting, had stated to a local newspaper on an earlier occasion, that, according to popular tradition, the particular place was where king Bhuvanekabahu II held assizes/adjudged cases (though there was no literary or other evidence to support this.)

With apologies to historians and archaeologists, I would like to suggest, as a lay reader, that  unrelated information available in Chapter XC (90) of the Mahavansa (continued in the Culavansa) lends  credence to the popular tradition that the archaeologist monk mentioned. That particular chapter narrates the goings on in a period of history made noteworthy by such events as the relocation of the seat of government from time to time to Dambadeniya, Kurunegala,  and Yapahuwa, internecine conflicts triggered by succession disputes sometimes leading to torture, treachery and murder, foreign invasions, the forced removal of the Tooth Relic to the captivity of Pandyans in south India by ‘a chief among Tamils, known as Ariya Cakkavatti, albeit he was not an Ariya’, and its eventual recovery through sophisticated diplomacy, cultural activity in the service of Buddhism and the advancement of letters under royal patronage, and the construction of architectural monuments such as the magnificent rock fortress city of Yapahuwa (Subha-pabbata/Subhacala/Subagiri) built by king Bhuvanekabahu I, whose son Bhuvanekabahu II ruled at Kurunegala from 1293-1302 CE. That the latter dispensed justice from a specially constructed assembly hall in Kurunegala is not an improbability. Has any archaeologist tried to compare the architectural features of the alleged  royal assembly hall to those found at Yapahuwa? In view of these facts, talking further about the issue is worth our while. (The Mahavansa references here are based on Mudaliyar L.C. Wijesinha’s translation of 1889.)

The issue involves the accidental or premeditated partial destruction of a heritage building and its complex aftermath. The foreign and local supporters of the opposition may not see any complexity in either, the former because of their ignorance of, and the latter because of their indifference to, the cultural sensitivities and political perceptions of the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community. Hence they might express adverse opinions about the way the six categories of people responded to the incident.

It is obvious that the mayor found himself caught off his guard when he was confronted with the fact that what was partly demolished was of archaeological value. A minister of the present government, a prominent member of the SLPP (who comes from a business background, and who was a UNP stalwart before he joined the Mahinda camp), rushed to his rescue, which one of his cabinet colleagues publicly criticised. If some irregularity was committed in this instance, which is very likely, there is a common heritage of guilt to be shared by the incumbent and previous mayors, possibly of a different political colour. Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, it seemed, showed a special interest in the matter as the Buddha Sasana and Cultural Affairs minister in the caretaker administration. The opposition’s exploitation of the mayor’s blunder to attack the government to gain some propaganda advantage over it, with the elections round the corner, made the PM’s concern in this regard look like a mark of what they probably thought was his desire to engage in some sort of damage control exercise. In my opinion, there was absolutely no need for the government to register a panicked response. What happened was what could have happened under any government, notwithstanding its desire to avoid such embarrassment or to ensure rectification of what went wrong in such a situation. The commercial abuse of that place, and many other similar registered and unregistered heritage sites, for that matter, has persisted for a long time, in some cases, with the connivance of or under the sponsorship of politicians in the local authorities allied to main parties. Party leaders have no control over this. In politically motivated attacks on the country’s ancient Buddhist heritage in the east particularly, government officials become vulnerable to manipulation by well funded extremists through bribery.

The only solution is to leave matters to the law enforcement authorities so they can take appropriate action. The PM-appointed committee has made some recommendations (conservation of the part damaged while preserving its archaeological features, acquisition of the building by the Department of Archaeology, requesting the RDA to revise its road widening plan at this point, prosecuting the persons responsible for the destruction, and recovering the cost of conservation from the institutions or individuals responsible for the destruction) which are to be implemented in the short term. Once the building is restored and the problem, whatever it is, that required a part of it to be bulldozed under cover of the night is sorted out, the current mode of its utilization will have to be reviewed, and changes introduced as appropriate. At the meeting he had with the monks of the Bauddha Upadeshaka Sabhava on July 25, the President decided to appoint a committee of experts to propose changes to the Antiquities Ordinance, which should ensure more robust implementation of the law relating to archaeological places, buildings and objects than now.

Even in the past, the President was the only person in a position of power (as defence secretary) who made a meaningful intervention in the problem first articulated by Buddhist monks (for example, Kuragala). Meanwhile, it will be very important to depoliticize and de-communalize the problem of protecting the archaeological relics of the country’s glorious Buddhist past. Most of the vulnerable sites lie in the north and east, where the island civilization started as currently understood. Actually there is no threat to them from the mainstream Tamil and Muslim minority communities who respectively dominate those provinces in terms of population numbers, but these peaceful people are held hostage by a few political extremists (separatists and jihadists).  Tamils and Muslims are not confined to these two provinces. More than 50% of them live in the south among the Sinhalese. The protection of archaeological sites has become a political and communal issue, particularly in the north and east, because of the extremists. The government must enlist the support of ordinary Tamils and Muslims in these areas to overcome the extremists, and then entrust the protection of the archaeological sites to people of all three communities who live there, in addition to ensuring state protection of the same. Places already encroached upon must be re-acquired by the state, and people already settled on them gradually relocated elsewhere, with the least inconvenience to them.

These archaeological treasures belong equally to all present day Sri Lankans irrespective of ethnicity. In economic terms, the existence of ancient historical places and objects is beneficial to the people who today inhabit the relevant areas, because they are tourist attractions. Most people are ignorant of the value of these relics of the past. Popular ignorance facilitates the extremists’ anti-national activities. One of the lessons taught by the Kurunegala episode is about the importance of adequate awareness on the part of the officialdom, as well as the populace, regarding the country’s inestimable archaeological treasures.



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Opinion

Cosmic Egg, Jealousy and Rhetoric

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Remarks I made (The Island, 12 Oct) on Upul Wijayawardhana’s article on Astronomy, Astrology, Cosmology, etc., in The Island  of 07 October, weren’t at all meant to be ‘snide’ or derogatory as he wrongly alleges in his 15 October The Island article! I just would have liked him to delve somewhat deeper into the subjects he referred to in his article’s title, without fanning out tongue-in-cheek (his phrase) in various directions anecdotally. He listed scientists doing excellent work both at home and abroad, throwing in vignettes too from their lives. This is inspiring, of course, and cause for much pride; but it would have been more useful if he had included, even briefly, some specific findings from their work that had a bearing on his article’s title.

I am sorry I did not ‘expand’ more on the ‘cosmic-egg’ as, he says, he had wished. Far finer heads are grappling with it with little or no success; its understanding could well be even outside the confines of science as we know it. My purpose was to point out that the Big-Bang couldn’t have been the start of it all, as casually accepted by some. Let’s be happy anyway that the ‘cosmic-egg’ did  ‘expand’ by itself to make the Universe – even without my help!

 In his  15 October article again in a familiar vein, he asks in his title,  ‘Jealousy: is it in our genes?’  As before, he then wavers away to give detailed accounts of some scientists doing excellent work abroad, and of Yohani, the successful young singer, and exhorts us, I assume, not to be jealous of them. Message taken; thanks!

To return to his rhetorical title, if jealousy is indeed in our genes no DNA sequence has been found for it as yet, but fingers are always crossed!

Let’s not scoff at it overmuch either; jealousy’s quite human; and harmless too – but only if indulged in extremely lightly and in passing; it could even prompt initiative and creativity!

 IVOR TITTAWELLA

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President must match his words with deeds

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa accompanied by Army Commander General Shavendra Silva for the Army Day celebrations at Saliyapura

We were pleased to read the recent speech delivered at the 72nd anniversary of the Gajaba Regiment by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in which he admitted about the voter disillusionment in his government. We are aware that the government had to contend with unprecedented issues on account of the Covid epidemic, and had to give priority in seeking solutions to the challenges by imposing restrictions to the economic and social activities; while channelling limited resources to medical supplies and social service facilities.

If the President is prepared to review and turn a new page for the improvement of the country, one should expect the President to rehash the decision-making procedure of the Government. The voters are of the view that some of the crucial steps adopted, were either introduced or implemented in some instances, without recognising the impact on the country’s sovereignty and security.

As an initial step, the President should consider appointing a National Planning Committee with nationalist-minded experts, to work on a programme to tackle key economic issues and management of nationally important strategic centres for the next four years. Without proceeding ahead haphazardly and creating crisis situations, once such decisions are adopted, if the government can adhere to a plan with a nationalist vision, it will be acceptable to the voters who elected the President. Such a plan should also investigate the country’s priorities, future stability, resources, and national security. The implementation should be transparent and accountable.

Let us examine some of the issues which were tackled without a proper plan, which resulted in causing frustration and disappointment among the voters and the public. The method of overseeing the pricing and supply of commodities, such as sugar, rice, garlic, gas cylinders, etc was atrocious, which brought untold hardships to the consumer and to the producers. The complete mismanagement must be admitted by the government, and a more rational formula will have to be adopted, if the plan is to take the country systematically forward. It is necessary to exercise detailed examination of the supply chain, the storage facilities, and the Government outlets, to get rid of the unconscionable profiteers awaiting to fleece the consumers and marginalise the public organisations, which are established to protect the consumers. Once a rational decision is taken, the government should pursue the implementation with determination; rather than surrender to the dictates of the unscrupulous middlemen who hold onto the stocks, causing loss of confidence of the public.

A crucial area which needs urgent review is how to regulate luxury and semi-luxury imports, which consumes a considerable amount of foreign exchange earned by export of goods and services, including the foreign remittances of Sri Lankan workers. At least as a short term measure, the free trade introduced by JRJ about 40 years ago, should be re-examined and suitable qualitative controls should be introduced, to curb the outflow of foreign exchange for non-essential goods.

The President’s holistic decision on the banning of chemical fertiliser is, indeed, a step in the right direction, which will bring expected results in the improvement in soil and water quality and the general health of the masses. However, such a crucial decision was not followed professionally to ascertain the availability of other nutrients, and enough supply of compost fertiliser to apply in the following growing season. The unscientific method of managing the subject gave opportunities to many to engage in public agitation against this holistic decision.

It was, indeed, ironic to hear the slogans mouthed by ‘farmers’ of 2021 demanding chemical fertiliser, whereas their fathers were demonstrating in 1970s decrying the government’s and the officials’ dictates to replace bio-fertilizers with chemical fertiliser to ‘usher in thegreen revolution ‘. It is the wish of the majority of the population to get rid of the vicious cycle of poisoning, resulting from the use of chemical fertiliser, and we would request the government to take the required steps in the right direction to implement the laudable decision effectively and efficiently.

We need a clear and dedicated policy in relation to our international relations. We must always be nonaligned in our dealings with the big powers who are engaged in a global power game.

We should know the friendly nations who stood by Sri Lanka when it waged war with Tamil Tiger terrorists and subsequently at UNHCR, and about the other countries which attempted to crucify Sri Lanka for defeating the world’s most brutal terrorist organisation. Their attempts to continue persecuting Sri Lanka will naturally weaken the Sri Lankan state, and at all times Sri Lanka should express her rejection of such vicious attempts, and should bring these facts at bi-lateral discussions and multilateral conferences.

India, our neighbour, is leaving no stone unturned until we have PCs and with all powers. Most of the Sri Lankans do not want PCs, an additional tier of administration at a cost of colossal expenditure and with practically no benefits. At a time when Sri Lankans are required to tighten their belts and manage expenditure, the Government must convey to India that all issues can be managed under the present unitary system of Government. Sri Lanka should be noticeably clear on this issue to enable Sri Lanka-India international relationship to prosper. Sri Lanka should also continue bi-lateral discussions with India regarding oil tanks in Trinco, as to how these can be used for the economic development of the country, assuring that Sri Lanka will not allow any other country to have any control over the strategically important Trincomalee harbour. Recently an Indian writer has stated that India does not bother to understand her neighbouring countries, and decides on inter-state policies without considering the expectations of her neighbours. Imposing PCs on Sri Lanka and insistence on the implementation of the failed proposal emanated from the Indian centralised foreign policy machinery, which in this instance primarily addressed the aspirations of the Tamil Nadu agitators, who were expressing their support for the separatists in Sri Lanka. India’s strategy was to kill two birds with one stone, and executed its policy of proposing PCs to weaken the central government of Sri Lanka, while appeasing the extremists in Tamil Nadu to divert their attention from their own struggle for a separatist racist state in India. Sri Lanka should be firm in rejecting the Indian formula to destabilize the country, and continue to address the common issues faced by ordinary people in Sri Lanka, including the minorities living in the periphery.

The mandate given by the public clearly stated that the proportional representation system should be changed, and all future elections should be held according to the number of electorates, and members should represent the electorates based on the percentage of votes gained by the candidates. All who investigated into the system introduced by JRJ were of the view that the system breeds corruption and bribery, while precluding the visible representation of an electorate.

The President recently invited the expatriate Tamil groups, presumably as an effort to improve reconciliation of Sinhala and Tamil views and expectations. Such discussions should be based on specific conditions that the participants do not support separatism in Sri Lanka, and they accept a unitary Sri Lanka. Otherwise, such discussions will only provide opportunities to reopen the subject of traditional homelands, pushing the country back to the unenviable 1990s.

RANJITH SOYSA

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Opinion

Gamble of Provincial Council elections at this time

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By Jehan Perera

There are indications that the government is planning to conduct Provincial Council elections in the early part of next year.  It is reported that the cash-strapped government will be providing parliamentarians, who are in charge of district development, with Rs 100 million each to engage in development activities in their electorates.  In addition, former members of Provincial Councils, and local government authority members will also be entitled to substantial monetary resources to do likewise.  If these large sums of money are made available to politicians to spend prior to the election, they could contribute to the thinking that the government is investing in development for better times, ahead despite the hardships of the present. But the cost of this gamble which will include printing money could be high, so there must be other motivations.

The present situation on the ground is hardly propitious to the conduct of elections.  The economy is in deep trouble with foreign exchange reserves threatening to be negative if scheduled foreign loans are repaid on time unless there is a fresh infusion of foreign loans.   Among the several reasons why foreign exchange is scarce is that the government is keeping the foreign exchange rate artificially low instead of letting market forces determine the price.  This is no different from the price controls that the government attempted to place on rice which led to hoarding and artificial scarcities notwithstanding the declaration of a state of emergency to deal with the hoarders.  If the government relaxes the exchange rate it is likely that the foreign exchange rate, will soar and prices of imports will soar likewise, adding to the inflation in the country.

Some of the present day economic problems are beyond the control of the government to resolve. These would include the loss of economic production due to the months of lockdown that followed the rise in Covid spread.  The contribution of the tourism industry to the economy has been much diminished due to the closure of the country’s airports to prevent infection spread from abroad.  However, some of the economic setbacks have been self-inflicted.  The biggest one is the implementation of the chemical-free agriculture policy on a scale that has no precedent in any other country in the world.  Even the most economically advanced countries, such as Germany, where there is a  high demand for organic food, has only devoted around 10 percent of its agricultural land to chemical-free agriculture. And Switzerland, known as one of the cleanest countries in the world, recently rejected the banning of pesticides at a referendum as voters felt it was impractical.

SINGLEMINDED COMMITMENT

The government has so far shown a singular commitment to going ahead with the decision to have chemical-free agriculture.  There has been some concession to big business interests such as in the case of the tea industry. Some of the necessary chemical inputs for fertiliser are being permitted. However, this is an exception and the general rule that agriculture should take place without chemical inputs continues to prevail.   So far there has not been flexibility shown with the farming community who are coming out publicly in protest as they are seeing their harvests being reduced.  These protests are taking place in all parts of the country and in some areas the small farmers have not been planting crops fearing that the yield will be too small. The government has offered compensation but, given the financial crisis it is in, this is unlikely to materialise in the short term.

 The government’s present policy on organic agriculture appears to be following a military logic that sees the objective clearly and goes for it at all costs. One of the key features of democratic governance is that consultations take place with those whose interests are bound up with issues prior to the implementation of change.  These consultations need to take place at multiple levels over a period of time if the decision being made is likely to have major consequences.  Further it is not sufficient to practice tokenism in consultations.  Often consultations take place but the views generated are not heeded.  Those who consult sometimes appear to be listening but do not really listen nor are they willing to change their preconceived attitudes and plans.  The essence of democratic government is to be responsive to public opinion, and to educate public opinion on new measures that need to be taken in the larger interests of society.

 On the positive side, and to the credit of the government, it is providing space for public protests against its policies.  Speaking in New York at the UN General Assembly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he had instructed the police not to use batons and violence to break up peaceful protests.  Restraint has been shown in the case of the three-month long strike by government school teachers who continue to be paid their salaries while doing no work.  There were initial signs of harsh restraint when Covid control laws were used to detain some of the teachers who were leading the protests.  At this time these strong arm methods of control have stopped.  Unfortunately, however, the problems that the organic farming problems and teachers’ strike pose show no signs of being resolved through compromise.

 MULTIPLE MOTIVATIONS

There may be multiple motivations in holding Provincial Council elections at the present time.  These elections are already three years overdue.  The previous government failed to conduct the elections fearing that a bad performance would send a negative message to people who were already moving away from it. They changed the election law to make it more difficult to hold elections again. However, unlike the previous government, the present government leadership is made of sterner stuff when it comes to holding elections and winning them. It appears to be planning new strategies to regain the upper hand.  The 2022 budget which is to be presented to Parliament later this month will offer the government an opportunity to address the immediate concerns of voters at least in the short term. They may also see elections at this juncture as being helpful to ensure political authority and benefits for its second tier of leaders who will be satisfied with them at the moment.

 There is also speculation that the government’s sudden decision to conduct Provincial Council elections is the result of pressure from the Indian government. It is notable that the government’s announcement was made shortly after the visit to Sri Lanka of India’s Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla.  At his meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa he had reiterated India’s position regarding the need to fully implement the 13th Amendment and to hold the Provincial Council elections at the earliest. During his visit the Indian Foreign Secretary had also urged the Tamil political parties not to look to India for a solution to their problems but to discuss the issues that trouble them and resolve them in dialogue with the Sri Lankan government.

 In this context, the decision of the government to go ahead with Provincial Councial elections is the silver lining to the grey clouds that overhang the country.  It is an indication that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is being consistent with the pledges he made in New York at the UN General Assembly.  The holding of Provincial Council elections, even in the present disadvantageous political situation that the government is in gives a positive message that the President is not neglecting his promises to the international community with regard to the reconciliation process. Addressing the root causes of the war and bringing reconciliation between the communities needs to be the number one priority of any government.  The provincial council system as presently constituted is in need of improvement, both in terms of the distribution of powers and resources, but it is the way forward if the ethnic and religious minorities are to feel they are a part of governance structures of the country, and hence co-architects of a shared future in which there is national reconciliation.

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