The National Peace Council recently organized a tour for several religious and civil society members from the northern districts of Mannar, Jaffna and Vavuniya as well Puttalam to visit their counterparts in the Southern cities of Galle and Matara. The five day visit was conceptualized with the intention of bridging the divide between the communities in the North and South of Sri Lanka. The three decade long military conflict perpetuated and entrenched this divide, forcing the Tamils and the Sinhalese to perceive each other through the actions of military entities.
The itinerary for the group from the North included a variety of activities that contributed to their understanding of the history, culture and traditions of the people of the South which they never had the opportunity of experiencing or getting to know of. Daphne, one of the participating DIRC members from the North, who had just completed her A/Ls and visiting the South for the first time in her life, had this to say:
“Initially I was extremely scared of visiting the South since I have heard that the Sinhalese people are extremely dangerous. However when I came here I was surprised with the warm welcome that I received. While I was disappointed that I could not cultivate any friendships because of the language barrier, I did try my best to communicate with my Sinhalese counterparts. While I have changed my opinions about the ordinary Sinhalese people, I can’t say that is the case with the opinions that I have of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces.”
Daphne was not the only individual to air such sentiments, even members from the predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist groups that were receiving them had similar views to share. Sheila Dissanayaka, working at the Senani Elder’s Organization and a member of the DIRC in the historical Buddhist capital of Anuradhapura stated:
“The war distanced us Sinhalese and Tamils. When we get involved in such initiatives we get to meet Tamil people and have discussions with them. Unfortunately, we rarely get this opportunity as individuals. We know very little about their religion, culture and traditions.”
The “Exposure Visit”, as its name suggests was the second of its kind, where the National Peace Council (NPC) had organized visits for members from the 12 District Inter Religious Committees (DIRC) to visit each other with the intention of promoting mutual understanding between communities and thereby creating a conducive environment for reconciliation in this war ravaged nation. The DIRCs are committees that were created with the intention of promoting inter religious collaboration in catering to the humanitarian needs of women and children affected by the war in their respective districts. The DIRCs already comprise of an impressive total membership of 747 active members.
One of the reasons for conceptualizing this program from a religious dimension is because of the significant influence that religious leaders have within their local communities. Hence, it was believed that this unique leverage which they possess should be harnessed in the advancement of the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. These “exposure visits” conducted by the NPC were meant to facilitate this objective. While the objective of a larger peace remains distant, it was clear from the observations of this particular visit, that such tours indeed were a step in the right direction.
It did not take long to realize the latter. The first stop off for the members from the North in their visit to the South was at the scenic and ancient city of Anuradhapura inhabited by a large Sinhalese majority. Mariamma Anthony Croos, a History teacher from Mannar summed up her appreciation of the hospitality that her counterparts in Anuradhapura showed to her:
“I was extremely touched by the offering of “Bulath Kola (Betel Leaves”) by Anuradhapura DRC members to welcome us to the Anuradhapura DRC Meeting and the replica of a “Sandakada Pahana” (Moon Stone), which was given to us as a souvenir. Reconciliation begins with a hello.”
In Sinhalese and Tamil culture the offering of a “betel leaf” to welcome a guest is a symbol of great respect. While the “Sandakada Pahana” (Moon Stone) is a historical artifact symbolic of the great monarchial era of Sri Lanka stretching back thousands of years.
Having been divided by a gruesome war for nearly three decades, it truly was remarkable to witness each Sinhalese person from the Anuradhapura DIRCs taking one of their Northern counterparts by hand and leading them to a seat and then engaging in a conversation using a mixture of broken Sinhalese, Tamil and some even resorting desperately to gesticulations when the latter two attempts at interaction failed.
After an hour long ceremony in Anuradhapura the group travelled to Puttalam, where they had lunch and then set off to Colombo stopping on the way at the Don Bosco Training Center in Negombo, one of eight training centers in the country. The Don Bosco initiative was geared at providing valuable vocational programs to youth from all backgrounds who had failed in their secondary educational pursuits, let alone those who couldn’t secure admission into the local university system. One of the admirable features of this program was that unlike many of the private tertiary educational institutes that had popped up in Sri Lanka, the Don Bosco Institute made an active effort to provide their students with employment opportunities upon completion of their courses. It truly was a remarkable initiative that gave a second chance to youth to make a valuable contribution to society. Many of the members from the North concurred that the Don Bosco Model was one which should be worth considering. Another impressive reason to duplicate the Don Bosco model was that despite being run by the Catholic Church, youth from all religious backgrounds were welcome to enroll in the courses offered, by the organization. We were informed that the Catholic Church took special measures to provide facilities for Non Catholics to observe their respective faiths.
After spending the night in Colombo the group then took off to Galle. One of the procedures used by the NPC to challenge the negative stereotypes of the Sinhalese South that many from the North harbored was to show examples of inter ethnic harmony in the South. One such example was the recent activities that were taking place in the “Divithura Tea Estate”, where the predominantly Sinhalese supervisors in collaboration with members from the Galle DIRC had taken measures to provide the predominantly Tamil estate workers with national documentation. The members from the North claimed that they realized two things. Firstly that their belief of being the only community being targeted by the government sanctioned hardship was indeed false and secondly that contrary to the messages spread by organizations such as the LTTE accusing the Sinhalese for their supposedly repressive actions against the Tamil community were not fair assessments. Mariamma Anthony Croos once again was one of the first to point this out:
“We thought we were the only people who had problems. People in other areas suffer similar problems. Such an understanding of mutual grievances contributes to an environment conducive for peace.”
It was also worth noting that a former JVP Minister of the Local Council, who attended a similar occasion in Pittabadara claimed:
“I sincerely hope that one day we can do away with the requirement to mention our ethnicity in our birth certificate. I look forward to a day when we can replace that requirement with the label “Sri Lankan.”
Having been treated with a cup of tea and traditional “halapa” (Sinhalese Sweet) the group then set off to embark on a 45 minute boat ride from Karandeniya to Balapitiya on the picturesque Madhu Oya. Sister Rita, one of the members from the Vavuniya DIRC who had never visited the South remarked at the absolute beauty of the physical environment in the region. She also had much to say about the hospitality rendered to them, “I have never received a warmer reception in my life.” The treatment that they were meted out with in Balapitiya on a conference hall located on a floating raft by several distinguished dignitaries had much to do with this.
Having received small replicas of Sri Lankan Masks, which the region was famous for producing the group set off to the Wakkwala Training Center where they were to spend the night.
The next morning the group was taken to the Hikkaduwa Coastline to witness some of the corals that managed to survive the onslaught of the 2004 Tsunami. Upon viewing these corals, Sister Rita remarked:
“Human beings are very much like the Hikkaduwa coast. On the surface just like the waves at sea, humans were tumultuous creatures while deep within just like the beautiful corals they too were capable of doing a great deal of good.”
After a quick visit to the Galle Fort the group then took off to Matara, stopping at Pittabaddara, where members of the Matara DIRC had helped in the securing of marriage certificates to 20 couples, while some of them were newlyweds, there were also those who had been married for over 30 years but had not acquired the appropriate documentation.
After spending the night at the Matara, Sarvodya Center, the group visited the temple at “Paravi Doopatha” (Pigeon Island) where all of the members from the North engaged in Buddhist Pirith rituals despite, a majority of them being Hindus. The group was also welcomed by the Deputy Inspector General of the Police in the Southern Province. Let alone meeting the group, the DIG Niel Daluwatta also arranged a special VIP Police escort during their stay in Matara. This was meant to be a symbol of utmost respect from the Matara people. Government officials from the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration facilitated the event and encouraged the government officials from the Matara district to participate. The Matara district G.A. MS W. K. K. Athukorale, participated and gave a gracious welcome speech. After a visit back to the Sarvodya Center, the group then was given the opportunity of taking a dip in the famous scenic Polhena Beach. It truly was astounding to find grown Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslim adults to find themselves splashing around like children in the water. For that period of two hours it seemed that the scene unfolding at the Polhena Beach was the epitome of what a reconciled and united Sri Lanka should be.
In the final evening, the group was treated to an extremely colorful display of Sri Lankan Low Country Traditional Dances. While the item was occasionally punctuated by speeches given by politicians, it was clear that the group from the North was in absolute awe. Having consumed a traditional Sri Lankan Dinner consisting of the infamous “Ambul Thiyal” (Sour Fish), the group retired for the day.
Upon the conclusion of the visit, the attitudinal change towards the South in the Northern participants was quite palpable. Sister Rita who had witnessed the worst that the Sri Lankan war had to offer claimed:
“It was only when I attended this trip that my perception of Sinhalese Buddhist monks changed after having met Rev. Chandrarathana.”
Before this particular visit she had always perceived the Buddhist clergy as being another face of the alleged Sinhalese chauvinistic attitude towards the Tamil people. It was not only the attitudes of the Tamil participants that had changed, it was also a similar case with the one or two Sinhalese participants who came from the South. Priynaka Priyadarshani, a “Daham Pasal” (Buddhist Religious School) said that:
“Initially I was extremely reluctant to take part this visits because I was not sure how I would be able to get along with a predominantly Tamil group of people for a period of five days. However now I can safely say that I enjoyed it very much and I had no problems whatsoever in getting along with my Tamil colleagues. I hope they organize similar programs for youth in Daham Pasals and their Hindu Equivalent.”
When we look back at this visit, it’s clear that as the name suggests, that for reconciliation to take place, the conflicting parties should first be exposed to each other and provided an opportunity to get to know each other at a personal level. The positive responses of many of the participants are a testament to what could be achieved at the national level if indeed it was possible within this small group of 22 people. Mariamma Anthony Croos describes it best when she says that “Reconciliation begins with a Hello.”
A Paragraph on the EU DIRC Project implemented by NPC:
The EU funded project named “Enabling humanitarian solutions through multi-religious and cohesive community response in Sri Lanka” will cover a period of 24 months focusing on a specific objective of “Promoting multi-religious community responsiveness of groups who have been divided by the conflict and enable them to find appropriate humanitarian solutions to care for conflict –affected women and children. To achieve the objective, the project has panned out to 12 districts, covering the North, East and the South of Sri Lanka and currently 747 active members actively participate in the project. The National Peace Council is working towards achieving four main results that will pave the way to peace and reconciliation in the island and will create peaceful relations between all communities in Sri Lanka’s diverse population contributing to a healing society in a post war context.
The Article was written by Yohan Senerath, An Intern June 2010- August 2010.
The Article was written by Yohan Senerath, An Intern June 2010- August 2010.