By Jehan Perera –
The adequacy and need for further humanitarian initiatives to assist war-affected people three years after the war’s end is one on which there is contrasting opinions within the country and internationally. When faced with any call for improvement, the standard response of government authorities is to claim that Sri Lanka is a model of post-war resettlement and rebuilding which other countries can learn from. There is always an angry official denial that any serious problems exist. As a result the general opinion outside of the North and East is that the problems of the war-affected people have been more or less resolved by the government. However, by and large, people are open minded and willing to see a different side if there is someone willing to show it to them. This is what was evident at a recently held inter religious conference that was the culmination of a two year process of working together for reconciliation.
The 200 plus members who attended the conference had just ratified a resolution on strengthening humanitarian initiatives with regard to war-affected women and children. For two years those who were part of the conference had strived to do something tangible on behalf of those who had been victims of the war; they had finally come to share their learning experiences gained over that period. The resolution was now to be given to those who had the power to overcome obstacles and turn civil society aspirations into concrete actions. Sitting in the audience was Ven. Maduluwave Sobitha, one of the most senior and well known Buddhist monks in the country who had accepted an invitation to attend the closing stage of the conference.
A Muslim moulavi from the east climbed down from the stage where he was a co-chairman of the conference along with seven others who were leading clergy of the other three religions, namely Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. It is a cultural tradition in Sri Lanka that Buddhism monks do not come to others or stand up to receive worldly things, whether they are the honours the world can bestow or its problems. The organizers of the conference deemed Ven. Sobitha to be a religious leader of great influence to take the necessary action that their resolution demanded. Coming down from the stage, the Muslim moulavi walked up to the seated Buddhist monk and presented the resolution to him.
The willingness of the Muslim religious leader to go down from the stage to where the senior Buddhism monk was seated was not an indication of the superior place of one religion over the other. This was not a conference where one or the other religion dominated. The seating arrangements on both the stage and on the floor reflected the equality of the different religions. The Muslim moulavi’s action reflected respect for the cultural traditions of another religion that exists within those who are spiritually motivated. The meaning of this simple action has positive implications for religious co-existence and inter-ethnic harmony in the country. It means that the mistrust and polarization that exists can be overcome where there is proper leadership, conscious effort and goodwill is built up.
There could have been a clash of opinions within the hall when the ratification of the resolution came up. Where there are 200 people from diverse backgrounds gathered in a hall for a day, and who are tired from having travelled from afar, tempers can get frayed and a sudden conflict can erupt. However, the draft resolution that was approved by the 200-strong conference was worked on a few weeks earlier by a drafting committee consisting of about 25 persons. At that discussion there had been some areas that were difficult for the drafting committee to agree upon. They came from 12 districts of the country including the North and East, which were the most severely affected by the three decades long war. Those from the North and East in particular had strong feelings about the problems that continued to affect war victims there. They wished for a resolution with more demands and more bite in it. Others in the drafting committee urged a more restrained approach. They cautioned that the resolution needed to be ratified by a much larger group, and so needed to be acceptable to all. There was a process of negotiation and give and take which serves as an example to the political society in the country.
Those who ratified the resolution were religious clergy from all four major religious communities and their lay adherents. They were aware that the resolution they were giving their assent to would be directed to those vested with the authority of the state, who had the power to act on their demands and recommendations, and who could also view them with disfavor as being critical of the prevailing situation. The resolution that was approved at the conference would be an expression of thinking from the community level itself. It is an important indicator to the government of unfinished tasks in the area of resettlement and rebuilding of the lives of those affected by the war. It cannot be dismissed as the mere propaganda of an NGO or of any political party with a partisan political agenda.
While the resolution focused on the humanitarian needs of women and children who were affected by the war, it also showed that more needed to be done, especially where the political and human rights of the people were concerned. The formulation of the resolution was an indicator that it is possible to reach agreement on matters that affect the lives of people through a consultative process where there is goodwill and trust. This will be a source of encouragement to the political authorities in dealing with the early warning signs of new conflicts, especially in the area of religion. A few weeks ago there were Buddhist-Muslim clashes over a mosque in Dambulla in the middle of the country and in Mannar in the north there is an increase in Tamil-Muslim tension over resettlement of displaced persons.
Among the many observations that the inter-religious conference made was the lack of proper infrastructure for people who are being resettled, the high degree of military presence which vitiates civil administration, continuing abductions and disappearances, the problems of rehabilitated LTTE cadre in finding employment, the difficulties of those who have lost their family members in getting death certificates or even ascertaining what happened to them, continuing restrictions on fishing and farming activities due to military controls, the use of outside labour instead of utilizing the people of the area in infrastructure projects, the prevalence of social vices due to poverty and abuse of power, the need to utilize both Sinhala and Tamil languages in government offices and the utilization of land to serve commercial interests rather than those of the people.
Some excerpts from their resolution are worth reproducing. “The Council has noticed several problems with regards to resettlement efforts in the North and East, especially in instances where displaced families are resettled away from their traditional land. It is also saddening to note that people have been displaced due to government efforts during the post war time, as a result of apportioning land for tourism activities, and the transfer of land for foreign companies for business purposes. Furthermore this has resulted in the loss of traditional livelihood for people in the area. The Council hopes to makes the following recommendations in this regard– stressing the importance of resettling people in their traditional lands; the handing over of land to foreign companies in a manner which minimizes the effects on the civil society; minimizing unnecessary political intervention; and in ensuring security for resettled individuals.”
The resolution also “welcomed the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission whilst stressing the importance of implementing the recommendations. At the same time the Council feels believes that programs should be implemented with the aim of promoting mutual understanding and goodwill between the people of the North and East and rest of the country.” (See attached document for full resolution).
The goodwill and trust that existed within the hall where the conference took place was matched by the diversity of the religious leaders and the followers of their religions. For two years they had interacted with each other in workshops that identified what the special needs were in each of the districts, trainings that strengthened leadership and analytical skills and in exposure visits that took the members from out of their own limited experience to see the situation in other districts at first hand. The environment of goodwill in the conference hall can be replicated in the country at large. Drawing an example from the Maha Gosingha Sutra, a Buddhist monk noted at the conference how the Buddha preached the importance of religious coexistence, by showing other monks how diverse religious faiths, and beliefs existed in the forest of Gosingha, and that the beauty of this coexistence surpasses the beauty of flora and fauna within the forest. This is the yet untapped beauty and strength of Sri Lanka.