Eye on the World

Sri Lanka: The Other Dimension

Much has been said about the continuing violent conflict in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government’s withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement, plunging the country into grievous crisis and exposing the civilian population, particularly in the north-east, into further misery, has given rise to many civil society organizations raising their voices. 

The general feeling is that the continuation of war will only cause more misery for the ordinary people of Sri Lanka and an Island once called the Pearl of the Indian Ocean would be ruined by war. Jafna is a City under siege. Even Palestine does not appear to be as devastated by war as Jafna.  There is a climate of fear, hate and insecurity in this beautiful island inhabited by a majority of should be peace loving Budhists. The ceasefire was brokered by Norway and the ceasefire agreement was signed on 22 February 2002, by the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party (UNP) government and Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). An international monitoring body known as the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) was established to enquire into any instance of violation of the terms and conditions of this agreement. Based on the ceasefire agreement, the Sri Lankan and the Norwegian governments concluded a Status of Mission Agreement (SOMA) on 18 March 2002 with the concurrence of the LTTE. The SOMA defined and set out the status, privileges and immunities of the SLMM and its members.

Alongside the hostilities a process has also begun to draft a new constitution to accommodate the groups which are experiencing discrimination and oppression. An All Party Representative Committee (APRC) to create a new constitutional framework has been formed. Two issues of concern which have a potential to flaw the process are (1) whether or not Sri Lanka’s Constitution should be explicitly labeled as ‘unitary’; and (2) whether or not the Northern and Eastern Provinces should be remerged.At the same time there are external factors such as the suppliers of armaments and people with vested interests in the oil rich northern region. 

Recently a multi-faith group led by the World Conference on Religions for Peace visited Sri Lanka and had discussions both with local religious groups and with the government.  This group of Senior international religious leaders of different faiths met in war-torn Jaffna, Sri Lanka, to identify peaceful means for ending Sri Lanka’s violent ethnic conflict. Religions for Peace, the world’s largest and most representative multi-religious coalition convened the summit of religious leaders from seven countries.

The senior religious leaders – representing Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu faith traditions – convened on 11–14 December 2007 at the Public Library Auditorium in Jaffna, which is located in the highly volatile northern region of Sri Lanka. Making Jaffna the location of the summit was a symbolic expression of solidarity with all those who continue to live in situations of violence and despair due to the ongoing conflict.

This group unanimously adopted a Jaffna Declaration of Religious Leaders. “As religious leaders with extensive experience in peace making in other parts of the world, we urge a renewed search for a non-violent solution to the ongoing conflict,” the statement said. “We do not accept that there can be victory through a military solution or that war can bring peace. On the contrary, as religious leaders, we believe that violence begets violence and hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love.”

In the statement, the leaders called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and for increased development assistance to reconstruct the war-torn areas, empower local community groups, rebuild the livelihoods of war-affected people, and strengthen the national economy. The leaders also called for an immediate end to the use of claymore mines, artillery fire, and bombings that have targeted civilians; and to the forced conscription of children and adults into armed groups. Mr. Yasushi Akashi, Representative of the Government of Japan for Peace Building, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Sri Lanka, gave a keynote address at the Summit. Mr. Akashi has served as an Under-Secretary in the United Nations for public information, disarmament, and humanitarian and emergency relief.

This gathering was one of a series of meetings designed to support the emergence of a Religions for Peace Inter-religious Council–Sri Lanka, that would include senior religious leadership from throughout Sri Lanka – West, East, North and South. Future meetings are planned for Kandy and Trincomalee.

The venue of the meeting was the Jaffna Public Library, which was burned down in 1981 in the course of the conflict and rebuilt nearly two decades later to be a testament to a new era of peace and national reconciliation, which is still to dawn.

In a report a young activist expressed her experiences in Jaffna when she met:
 a little boy I met who saved his baby brother’s life by scooping his intestines back into his torn belly and holding him till he was given medical attention.
 a little girl who saw a man on his knees begging for his life before having his brains blown out on the road in the middle of the morning.
 A cousin of a Priest who was abducted, tortured and killed for daring to stand up to authority pleading for medical help for his parishioners.
 A girl whose brother went missing earlier this year and who tried in vain to get a letter across to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
 plight of people held in the prisons. Hundreds cramped into a tiny space with no proper sanitation facilities sharing their living space with their 49 cell mates who have contracted chicken-pox.
 A young girl whose parents were abducted and who was assaulted by the abductors the night before she appeared for the Ordinary Level examination with a bruised and battered body.
 A young soldier of the Sri Lankan army who had bought two mangoes and was eagerly waiting for his shift to change so he could go back to camp and write a letter to his family to inform them he would not be able to visit them this new year.

I can’t write. I can only hold their hands and cry with them….” “During the period of the Summit we experienced first hand the difficulties of travel to and from Jaffna. We saw the massive destruction of infrastructure and housing that occurred in previous phases of fighting, the loss of villages and fertile agricultural lands to High Security Zones, and the fear and insecurity in the lives of the people, especially youth, which is dehumanizing to all those affected. The sound of artillery firing, testimonials of daily killings and disappearances, the very large military presence in the city and the nighttime curfew provides added motivation to our work for peace in Sri Lanka,” recorded the statement.   

An appeal was made to the International Community to engage in positive action such as
1. reactivation of the donor co-chairs, and the enhancement of Japan and Norway’s facilitative roles, to re-open the path for fresh negotiations between the government and LTTE
2. provision of increased development assistance to reconstruct the war-torn areas, empower local community groups, rebuild the livelihoods of war-affected people and strengthen the national economy.
3. religious communities to concientise the communities they serve, on the values of peace, justice, reconciliation, forgiveness and repentance 
4. engage in an awareness creating, observation and monitoring role as a support group in a renewed peace process
5. take inspiration from the declaration of the Mahanayakes of the Buddhist Sangha in Tokyo in June 2002 to support the peace process and to build a Sri Lanka for all communities
6. welcome international religious leaders, especially from countries with a Buddhist tradition, to join hands with religious leaders in Sri Lanka in working for peace
7. request the World Conference of Religions for Peace to facilitate a process by which religious leaders directly meet and lobby with the parties to the conflict.

However despite the meeting of religious leaders and earnest appeals by community and religious leaders the war continues and more people have been killed and greater aggression seen in the past few weeks. On the eve of the New Year the following statement was made. "…2007 ends in Sri Lanka on an unpropitious note, in which the ascendancy and consolidation of nationalism as the main feature of democratic politics has not only led the country into violence, armed conflict and human rights abuses, but also institutionalized a culture and discourse of government whose values are fundamentally at odds with liberal democracy…This will mean human suffering on a massive scale in a country already ravaged by thirty years of civil conflict, and tragically, it also means that the prospects for a durable and inclusive peace secured by a constitutional settlement addressing the aspirations of all Sri Lankans may have been retarded by at least another generation."

Youth and NGO’s are praying for peace in Sri Lanka and they need international support and encouragement to continue their struggle for a peaceful and just settlement to this terrible conflict. Their Christmas was observed by a fast. They wrote
In the midst of hunger and war
Let us celebrate the promise of plenty and peace
In the midst of oppression and tyranny
Let us celebrate the promise of service and freedom
In the midst of doubt and despair
Let us celebrate the promise of faith and hope
In the midst of fear and betrayal
Let us celebrate the promise of joy and loyalty
In the midst of death
Let us celebrate the promise of love and life

They asked Are the tears of these mothers Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim?