22 June 2009

Pursuing hope and seeking reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka ... an island of serendipity or an island of hope?

Patrick Comerford

The place of reconciliation, peace and justice in the mission of the Church is the main theme of this year’s conference of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. USPG – Anglicans in World Mission is meeting at the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, and the conference opened this afternoon with a keynote address on conflict and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

This afternoon we were to have been addressed by Bishop Duleep de Chickera, Bishop of Colombo. However, events in Sri Lanka in recent weeks means he has been unable to join us this week, and instead we had a very moving description of con flict in Sri Lanka and the prospects for reconciliation from Dr Shanthi Hettiarachchi. In his keynote address he spoke of how his native Sri Lanka has been torn apart for generations by armed conflict, ethnic and religious divisions, and faces tough challenges when it comes.

An island of unique beauty

Through history, Sri Lanka has been known by different names: Thambapanni – the land of copper, Serendip – the land of the Cosmos, and Ratnadeepa – land of gems and precious stones. It was known to the Greeks as Taprobane, to the Portuguese as Celoa, while the British named it Ceylon. Since independence in 1948, it has been known as Sri Lanka, but those marketing the island for tourism refer to as a “Taste of Paradise” or as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean.”

We were told how Sri Lanka is an island of unique beauty, a land of enchantment and enticement. Since an early phase of its history, it has been predominantly Buddhist, and Marco Polo brought it back to the attention of Europeans when he visited it in 1271-1298 and described it as the“finest island of its size in the world.”

Sri Lanka is 65,000 sq km in size – making it slightly smaller than Tasmania, and about the same size as the Republic of Ireland. The 19.4 million people of Sri Lanka have a diverse ethnic composition: Sinhalese, 74%; Moor and Malay Muslims, 7%; Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils, 17%; and others (2%) others, including local indigenous people, and people of Portuguese, English, Scots and Dutch descent. They have diverse languages, with Sinhalese spoken by 74% of the people, Tamil by 18%, and other languages accounting for 8 per cent, with English serving as a link language between the two main groups.

In religious affiliation, the people include Buddhists, 69% – Sri Lanka’s Theravada Buddhism is similar to the Buddhism found in Thailand and Burma; Hinduism, 15% (mainly Saivite Hinduism); Christianity, 7% (Roman Catholic and Protestant); Islam, 7%; and others, 2%. All Buddhists are ethnic Sinhalese, while all Hindus are ethnic Tamils. Christians come from both groups; Malay and Moor Muslims speak both languages.

Buddhism arrived in the third century BCE and is interwoven with the history identity of the majority Sinhalese. In the past, Sri Lanka has had three European colonial powers: the Portuguese arrived in the 14th century, the Dutch in the 17th century, and the British late 18th century. Independence was achieved in 1948, and Buddhism is protected by the constitution and in law.

Ethnic division and conflict

The pan-national politics of the pre-independence and post-independence 1940s eventually gave way to ethnic politics in the 1970s. The constitutional changes introduced in response to a southern revolution led to the alienation of the minority Tamils and separatist parties started to emerge in the 1970s, followed by the emergence of the Tamil Tiger militants and their campaign of violence.

After riots in the capital, Colombo, in 1983, the Tamils felt unsafe in the own land of their origin, and “Black July” in 1983 marked a watershed, leading to long years of migration to South India.

The territorial demands of the Tamil separatists included two-thirds of the island’s coastland. The LTTE leader, Prabhakaran, devolved a violent strategy for his separatist dream that included suicide bombers – who could have taught Hizbullah and Hamas more than they ever knew – child soldiers, and committed guerrillas who went into battle with cyanide capsules around their necks. Early training was provided in south India. When the Tamil Tigers splintered into over 14 groups, the LTTE was ruthless in killing off its opponents and so became the sole voice of Tamil separatists.

The counter-terror agenda of government, which claimed it represented a unitary state, was strengthened by the events of 9/11 and 7/77 and the subsequent “War on Terror” gave the government a new confidence.

Efforts to bring in Norway as a “third party” honest broker failed, and the conflict intensified, so that by late 1990s 60,000 people had been killed on both sides.

Further disaster hit the island in 2004 when 30,000 people were killed by the tsunami that hit in north-east Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, the LTTE underestimated a new strategy and the increasing military capacity of the Colombo regime, and the LTTE suffered another major setback when its arms depots and supplies off the coast of Malaysia were destroyed in 2006.

This was a forgotten war in international eyes, and the final phase of the military offensive hit the headlines in an unprecedented way as the LTTE taken aback. The Tamil Tigers lost their de facto state of 15,000 sq km, which shrank back to 16 sq km, then to 14 sq km by the end of April, and to 11 sq km by 4 May. Between 14 and 15 May, the last exodus of people from LTTE area saw 75,000 people walk out into an army-cleared area. By then the surviving 15 to 18 key Tiger leaders and a small group of cadres were cornered in little strip, fighting their final battle. The final assault was lethal for both sides, and the 26-year Tamil Tiger uprising came to an end.

Sri Lanka has its friends and its foes on the international scene. Its friends include China, Pakistan, Iran, Libya, Russia and Japan. Neighbouring India had adopted a stance of unhealthy neutrality following the murder of Rajiv Gandhi by Tamil Tigers. That murder has haunted India ever since and there has long been a love-hate relationship between India and Sri Lanka.

In addition, relations have been soured with Norway, whose efforts at brokering a ceasefire failed, and relations with Britain and the EU, and the West in general are poor. Between March and May 2009, all EU, UN and Indian diplomatic missions aimed at securing a ceasefire were refused entry by an obstinate Colombo government.

Hope for the future?

Now, what are the hopes for a post-conflict Sri Lanka?

There have been about 20,000 civilian deaths in past three months. Today there thousands of soldiers with permanent disabilities, there has been untold damage to property and the country’s infrastructure, there are 300,000 displaced people living in camps, and resettlement has been slow. There are strong anti-government feelings throughout the island, press freedom has been curbed and is limited.

Yet there is a sense of relief after years of fear, lack of movement and suicide bombings. A new phase is emerging with confidence. Iran has pledged $1.9 billion, while Iran and other countries are promising $1 billion for reconstruction. The UN appears to be supporting the government, but there are demands for an inquiry into allegations of war crimes by the government, and the international community appears divided.

China now wants Sri Lanka’s government to focus on national reconciliation, while the US has spoken about the need for devolution.

Meanwhile, the paths to reconciliation face new challenges. Suspicions, hate, and the refuelling of memory by the distant diaspora make reconciliation difficult. Those difficulties are compounded by the Sacralisation of ethnic identity and the demonising of the other. Can the government be a liberator while it is a perpetrator?

Decommissioning poses a challenge to the government, and the all-party conference must resume. There is a need to examine a possible amnesty for low-ranking Tamil Tiger cadres, some of whom are as young as 13 or 14. And there should be reasonable autonomy for Tamil affairs.

Sri Lanka is a battered nation after three decades of violence. The majority can rule, but it cannot dominate. The majority may be powerful, but it must also be just and honour the rule of law. At the same time, there is a challenge to minorities too. They are a fact of life, but how can they understand and live with that without being isolationists? Minorities are a healthy sign of democracy, but they must engage with every single aspect of national life and they must voice their views. Any return to violence would be futile over time, with a very heavy loss.

Challenges facing the Churches

Dr Hettiarachchi then turned to the challenges facing the Churches. They make up 7% of the people, and include seven Roman Catholic dioceses and two Anglican dioceses – Colombo and Kurunagala.

The Churches face serious challenges. They are part of the national religious fabric, and they hail from both ethnic groups. But can they provide a glimpse of reconciliation?

The Churches need time to heal ethnic strife, which has also crept into every single congregation. The Church must be part of the struggle for justice and a harbinger of hope.

He spoke of the primacy of embrace, and asked: When the enemy is the victim, how do we do that? This is a Christian calling and challenge.

Propositions for reconciliation

Dr Hettiarachchi offered three propositions for global and local Christian agencies.

They must have international sensibility. There is nothing global that does not affect the local. Therefore, those agencies must have an ability to analyse events in a way that goes beyond media reporting. There is no nobility in violence, as it only begets more violence. The perpetrator/victim is a cyclic paradigm, and it is hard to determine who is right in a conflict when facts are filtered and blurred, even manipulated.

They need theological imagination that is firmly rooted in the Christian kergyma and catechesis. This involves creatively reading the context in the light of the text, in order to be relevant in discerning the changes that need to be adopted in the light of hard realities. There is a need to transform ill-will into good-will with a prophetic imagination.

They must complement leadership witness in politics while being linked to grassroots and activism, encouraging a sustained leadership for political renewal. A prophecy of witness demands fidelity to the Gospel, winning the opponents and numbing those who are negative.

Democracy must be elevated, focussing on justice without losing the enemy, because for some the enemy is my brother or my sister. They must create a moral compass to which parties and warring factions can subscribe to.

And he asked: Is giving and forgiving a possibility? He suggested that this is a moral test for the whole nation, and a spiritual dilemma.

What is the mission of the Church in the midst of this? Relief work is easy with funds and support. But acceptance of the minority position and the majority role is hard and tough to deal with. Giving is easy, forgiving is hard, forgetting is difficult.

He concluded by saying Sri Lanka is a hopeful nation with friends. But there are big questions to be answered, and big issues to be addressed. He said prayers would help to take the troubled nation to the stage where it would see that reconciliation is a journey, and to realise that no one single step is easy. The Tamil and Sinhala people need to journey together towards the new nation ahead of them, and to make it a land for all with peace and justice. Then it might be as beautiful as the descriptions we heard at the beginning of this keynote address.

Later in the afternoon, we heard about experiences of conflict and reconciliation from friends of USPG who are present from a range of counries, including South Africa, Brazil, Chile, the Philippines, Malaysia, Ghana, Ireland, Zimbabwe, the Middle East, Sudan, India, New Zealand and England.

Canon Patrick Comerford is a director of USPG Ireland and represents the Church of Ireland on the council of USPG – Anglicans in World Mission.

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