Fear and Hope in Sri Lanka
Last fall Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), the regional network for which I work, conducted a three-week School of Peace (SOP) beginning in late October in Sri Lanka in collaboration with the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs (APAY) in Hong Kong and the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Last fall Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), the regional network for which I work, conducted a three-week School of Peace (SOP) beginning in late October in Sri Lanka in collaboration with the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs (APAY) in Hong Kong and the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Although ICF is a joint program of APAY and CCA, this SOP was the first time that APAY, CCA and ICF had organized an activity together. ICF’s primary program since 2006 has been a SOP that is held for more than three months in Bangalore, India. This 14-week program, however, is too long for most YMCA staff members and volunteers and those associated with CCA to take part. It was with this time constraint in mind that the SOP in Sri Lanka was held.
As part of the Sri Lankan SOP, we divided the 25 participants into four groups and went to different parts of the country. My group went to Batticaloa in the East, a predominantly Tamil area of the country with also a sizeable Muslim population. Here we visited a Muslim village and several Tamil communities as well as those affected by the tsunami in 2004 and women whose husbands, children and/or other relatives had disappeared during the 26 years of civil war that ended in May 2009.
This internal war was fought over the discrimination that the minority Tamil population felt it suffered in education, employment, etc., due to the attitudes and behavior of the country’s major ethnic group, the Singhalese. These tensions were unfortunately not resolved peacefully through dialogue, and subsequently, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took up arms in 1983 to create an independent Tamil homeland in the northern and eastern parts of the country that would be free of discrimination in these parts of the island where Tamils comprise a majority of the people.
The people of both ethnic communities, however, suffered immensely from more than two decades of violent conflict. Among the women we met who had lost a loved one, one woman’s husband was detained by the army and disappeared, and her father and brother were fatally shot by the army. Another woman described how her son, a high school student, and a son-in-law also were seized by the army and disappeared and another son-in-law was killed in a cross-fire between the army and LTTE. The second woman moreover lost her husband in the tsunami.
The people we met during our five days in Batticaloa were naturally happy that the war was over. However, among both members of the Tamil and Singhalese communities, there were still residues of fear. People said that they could not freely talk and publicly express their opinions. Moreover, in an area outside of Batticaloa that had been formerly controlled by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan army had a visible military presence even though the war had ended18 months earlier. It too was apparently wary of the permanence of peace. Furthermore, the triumphalistic attitude of the Singhalese-dominated national government after the war does not bode well for reconciliation between the two ethnic communities nor does it indicate a willingness on the part of the government to address the root cause of the war, i.e., discrimination. Thus, a question with which I left Sri Lanka is, Will Sri Lanka’s people have to endure the suffering of another war in the not-too-distant future?
I also found hope though during our visit in the reaction of children to their community’s social and economic problems. In one village afflicted by poverty as well as the brutality of the war and the destructiveness of the tsunami, we met an organized group of 140 children. Through interviews in people’s homes, they identified a number of problems in their village: drunkenness among men, separated families due to at least one parent migrating abroad to seek employment, child abuse, children working as fisher folk in this village near the sea, children not in school and the marriage of young women—some involving girls as young as 12 to 14 years old. The children determined that all of these issues affected them directly or indirectly. In response, they created dramas depicting these problems that they performed in the village to make these issues more public. They also wrote letters to the relevant government officials or the police, who surprisingly responded to the children’s concerns. As a result of these actions by the children, these problems in their community have either been eliminated or minimized. Their actions have taught me a lesson: do not underestimate the role that children can play in bringing about positive change. Sometimes the most powerful people are the youngest!
Bruce Van Voorhis
Through their actions, Sri Lankan children have eradicated or curtailed many of their village’s socio-economic problems through their commitment to improve their rural community in the eastern part of the country near Batticaloa.
(Bruce Van Voorhis works in Hong Kong for Interfaith Cooperation Forum [ICF], a regional network of young Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and indigenous activists working for justpeace at the grassroots level in South and Southeast Asia. ICF is a joint program of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs [APAY] in Hong Kong where Bruce is based and the Christian Conference of Asia [CCA] located in Chiang Mai, Thailand.)