Vision & Mission

Vision: A peaceful and just country in which freedom, human and democratic rights of all people are assured.

Mission:To work in partnership with different target groups to educate, mobilize and advocate to build a society of rights conscious citizens and a political culture that enables a political solution to the ethnic conflict and equal opportunities to all.

Monday, June 13, 2011

“Tidbits” from the DIRC Visit 4th-8th June – A Difficult Dialogue - Yohan Senerath

I have provided my very best translation below of what the participants had to say about their experiences of the exposure visit:
1)      Maria Anthony Croos, History Teacher, Mannar: 
“I was extremely touched by the offering of “Bulath Kola (Betel Leaves”) by Anuradhapura DRC members to welcome us to the Anuradhapura DIRC Meeting and the replica of a “Sandakada Pahana” (Moon Stone), which was given to us as a souvenir. Reconciliation begins with a hello.”

Having interviewed her at this point of the trip, I can testify that the term “heartened” was clearly an understatement. I would claim that she was ecstatic, considering the manner in which she was beaming.
“The Betel Leaf” in both Sinhalese and Tamil culture is regarded extremely highly as a symbol of respect, dating back to the monarchial era of Sri Lanka. In Sinhalese folk lore it is believed that this particular leaf originated from the “Naga Loka” alluding to the incident when Lord Buddha came to Sri Lanka to resolve a quarrel between two Naga Kings who were fighting over throne adorned with valuable jewels. The offering of this “Betel Leaf” as a mark of respect was highly appreciated.
“The Sandakada Pahana” (Moon Stone) depicts the various obstacles ordered in a linear manner to attaining Nirvana. The “Lotus Flower” found at the middle of the “Sandakada Pahana” represents Nirvana. The Moderator at this meeting spoke about an interesting story which pertained to religious tolerance during the monarchial era, when he was explaining the history of the “Sandakada Pahana.” The representation of the “Sandakada Pahana” in Polonnaruwa differs very slightly in the manner in which is depicted in the rest of the island. It is learnt that King Parakaramabahu upon the request of the Tamil community had ordered the removal of the “Bull” from the outer band. The elephant, bull, lion and horse depict birth, decay, disease and death respectively, while the swans symbolize the distinction between good and bad. The depiction of the Bull had offended the sensibilities of the Tamil community, in whose religion the cow was considered as a divine creature.  

Note that cultural items were exchanged at each of the DRC gatherings to reflect the culture of that particular area. The group from the North provided each of the members of the DIRC’s in South with Thal Juggery, Thal Alla and Thal Kavum. 

2)      Before the arrival of the group from the North, there was a thought that we should organize the seating arrangements in a manner in which the members from the Anuradhpura DRC members would sit on one side while the visiting members can sit on the other side of the room. To this remark a member of the Anuradhapura DRC responded by claiming:
“That would not be nice. They would feel as if they had been cornered and pushed aside. It would be far better to mix the seating arrangement so as to ensure that the members from the North would be sitting next to Anuradhapura DRC Members.” This was indeed a positive attitude for an individual coming from a city which was subject to numerous LTTE attacks and lives sacrificed in the war. When the Northern group arrived, each of the members of the Anuradhapura DRC took one of their counterparts by the hand and guided them to a seat having done so they then initiated discussions using a mixture of broken Sinhalese and gesticulations. 
3)      Prema Paliyagoda, Sarvodya, Member Anuradhapura DIRC
“Buddhism was the only religion we knew about, gatherings like this enable us to know about other religions. After having heard these religious leaders speak, I now realize that all religions have a similar set of core ethics. I did not know this before.”

She went onto explain that she specifically knew very little about Hinduism. This was said  after she had heard various other religious leaders speak. 
4)      Sheila Dissanayaka, Senani Elder’s Organization, Member Anuradhapura DIRC
“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.”
Going through my notes I realize that it all begins with getting an opportunity to talk to each other. It seems as if that the Sinhalese and Tamils come from two completely different countries. Sinhalese know more about the traditions of North Indians than our South Indian brethren. 
5)      Rev. Chandrarathana, Head Buddhist Monk, Puttalam 
“The support shown by the Muslim community during the recent passing away of the Head Priest of Puttalam was something which I never have witnessed before. All of the pupils of the Arabiya College attended the funeral to convey their respects at the passing away of the Head Buddhist Priest in our Temple.” 
Used this event as an example of the solidarity that exists between different religions in Puttalam. 
6)      George Justin, Member Jaffna DIRC
“People from the South only come to look at destroyed building and make no effort to empathize with our grievances.”

7)      A Participant (name kept anonymous for safety)

“The Military personnel have a victors mentality. Such an environment makes reconciliation impossible and may turn out to be a fundamental reason for the brewing of another armed Tamil militant movement.”
This was after complaining about the heavy military presence in the area. Also accused the Army of occupying civilian homes by force.
8)      Daphne, Member of Mannar DIRC, A/L Student 
Upon hearing the sound of fireworks when in Negombo:
“When we hear such noises, we cower in fright knowing very well they are the sound of gunshots. The louder the more frightened we get.”  

9) JVP Minister Local Council Matara
“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.”  

10)  Maria Croos, History Teacher, Mannar
“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.” 
This comment was aired after hearing the grievances of the estate workers residing in the Divthura Estate. 

 11)  Leader of the Opposition, Balapitiya, Local Council
“We are the only town in the whole of Sri Lanka to have a Sinhala Muslim Friendship Road.”
Religious harmony in Balapitiya. We were also informed that 1100 government servants took “sil” to mark the 2600 Sambudhu Jayanthi. During this time, Muslim men and women would come and help with the proceedings.
12)  Head of the Divisional Secretariat, Balapitiya

“Usually journalists harp on issues that contribute to the polarization of communities, in this case they would be forced to write about an attempt by politicians to unite the various communities in the country.”

 13)  Vavuniya Sister Rita, Member Vavuniya DRC

“I have never received a more warmer reception in my life.”
Commenting on the welcome that she received at Balapitiya by the members of the Galle DIRC. Note that Sister Rita was one of those individuals who had seen and gone through the worse that war had to offer. 
  Note: During the Coral Boat Ride  in Hikkaduwa– I was in a boat with participants from the North. A member of the Organization team was acting as a guide informing the participants from the North about the Hikkaduwa area and the corals themselves in Tamil. During this time, one of the participants from the North by the name of Daphne, was mindful of the fact that I could not speak Tamil. She therefore urged the organization staff member to also speak in Sinhalese so that I could understand what he was saying. 
Note:A father who was a member of the Galle DIRC of Tamil ethnicity recalled his experiences during the LTTE attack on the Navy Compound in Galle. At this point of time fearing for his life, the father was contemplating whether it was best to leave the area for his safety. However the Sinhalese people in the region claimed that, that would be unnecessary, claiming that they would be willing to protect the Father to prevent any harm from coming to him. This showed the religious solidarity. This was in stark contrast to the relatives of the Father who claimed that people from Galle were extremely vicious against Tamils, hence it was best to leave that area.
14)  Civil Servant in the Galle District of Sinhalese descent.
“I shall not use the label of a terrorist to describe any of the participants of the militant conflict”

Note: At each of the locations that the group from the North visited, they were able to enjoy local cuisine, which most of them have never tasted before. 
 15)   Neil Daluwatta, Deputy Inspector General Matara 
On numerous occasions the media has failed to convey the grievances of the Tamil community. It is therefore important to address the root cause of this problem while shunning any solution formulated by the international community. It is important to move forward with the reconciliation process while protecting our President Mahinda Rajapaksha.” 
16)  Sister Rita, Vavuniya DIRC
“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.” 

17)  Sister Rita, Vavuniya DIRC
“It was only when I attended this trip that my perception of Sinhalese Buddhist monks changed after having met Ven. Chandrarathana.”

She initially believed that the Buddhist clergy was another group complicit in the Sinhalese oppression of Tamils. Sister Rita went onto explain that she would often be expected to hand over the seat that she was sitting on in the bus to Buddhist monks. She claimed that the seat that she often sat on was the one reserved for clergy. According to these events she believed that Buddhists were given a higher priority over their Christian, Hindu and Muslim counterparts. However she claimed that once she met Ven. Chandrathana from Puttalam, she realized that not all Buddhist monks were the same. She claimed that Ven. Chandrarathana was the epitome of a Buddhist monk and a genuine ambassador of the religion. Ven. Chandrarathana received glowing reviews from all the individuals who took part.  Participant Maria Anthony Croos from Mannar at the end of the visit in Kurunegala claimed that Ven. Chandrarathana 
            “Was a father figure for the entire group during the period of five days.”

18)  Priyanka Priyadarshani, Puttalam, Daham Pasal Teacher
“Initially I was extremely reluctant to take part this visit 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.” 
“I was also extremely happy about being able to visit a Muslim mosque in my whole life at the same time it was extremely heartening to see my Tamil counterparts participating in the Buddhist religious ceremonies that took place at the Temple on the Pidgeon Island.”

19)  Daphne, A/L Student, Member Mannar DIRC
“Initially I was extremely scared of visiting the South since I have heard that the Sinhalese people are 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.”

Note: At Kurunegala when the Puttalam group had to separate from the Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna groups, several individuals broke down into tears. This highly emotional scene was a testament to the strength of the bond that had developed between the participants regardless of their ethnicity. The Moulavi from Puttalam embraced each of the male participants as a mark of respect. 


The government was able to hold the international human rights community at bay at the recently concluded June session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Notwithstanding the airing of a documentary that purports to be battlefield executions and other human rights violations committed by government soldiers in the last phase of the war, the government was able to ensure that the report of the Expert Panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon was not tabled for discussion. The government delegation had pointed out that the Expert Panel’s report was merely an advisory one. It has also made the case that there was no need for an independent international mechanism to investigate the last phase of war, as the government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was addressing those same issues.

However, there is no guarantee that the government will be able to continue to prevail in keeping the Expert Panel report, also known as the Darusman Report in recognition of its Chairman, off the agenda when the next session of the UN Human Rights Council commences in Geneva in September. The most obnoxious and indeed threatening feature in it from the government’s point of view is its call for the setting up of an independent international monitoring mechanism. There is a possibility of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission coming out with its final report by then. The international human rights community is likely to await the LLRC’s findings before deciding whether or no to accede to the UN Panel’s recommendation to establish an independent international investigation mechanism regarding the allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka.

The main domestic thrust of the government’s strategy in coping with the UN Panel Report has been to discredit it within the country and thereby have the backing of the country’s people in any showdown with the international community. The government has accordingly denounced those groups that have been supportive of the UN panel report, including national and international human rights organizations and the Tamil Diaspora. The government has also carried out a major awareness campaign which has included getting a million signatures against the report. Although the report itself has not been translated into the Sinhala language, and only short excerpts of it have been published in the national newspapers, the general population is aware of the general contours of the allegations.

The tussle between the government and the international human rights community on the issue of human rights violations during the war has undoubtedly had an educational impact upon the general population regarding the problems faced by the people in the former conflict zones of the north and east. Most people would have been content to believe that the government had brought peace to the country by eliminating the LTTE on the battlefield. However, now they can see that since the end of the war, the government has been on the defensive in regard to human rights and a political solution to the ethnic conflict. They are seeing that the government, so powerful at home, is steadily losing ground internationally on these issues. This has brought home to the thinking section of the people that there is a need for them to get involved in peacebuilding to safeguard the country.


The visit to Sri Lanka last week of a high powered Indian delegation including its Defence and Foreign Secretaries and National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister is suggestive of the considerable pressures that the government is under. The issues of resettling of displaced persons, ending of emergency rule and the implementation of the 13th Amendment relating to the devolution of power are reported to have figured in the discussions between the visiting Indian delegation and the Sri Lankan government. Along with the meeting of the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Indian visit to Sri Lanka would give a message to the general population about the still far-from-finished business of peacebuilding in Sri Lanka.

During the period of the war, the government was successful in mobilizing the sense of patriotism and nationalism of the majority of people to obtain their support for the war and also to win massive majorities at election after election. Those who surround the government leadership at the highest levels come with this sentiment of the past. However, the challenge for the government today is to mobilize the more peaceful and accommodative sentiments of the same people to enable them to reach out across the ethnic, religious and regional divide. This ought not to be an overly difficult task because evidence from the ground suggests that the people are ready and even eager to be peacemakers with their fellow citizens, by getting to know each other better, to host them and to be friends with them.

In the past month there were two people-to-people programmes I was involved in as a member of a non governmental organization. In the first instance we got more than a hundred students from six universities that spanned the north, east and south of the country. They were Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims and many of them were mono-lingual, speaking only their mother tongue, either Sinhala or Tamil. The students came together for a week in Colombo to learn about the life and non-violent political strategies adopted by the great black American civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King, which eventually culminated in the substantial healing of the sharpest divide in American society.

In order to reduce the problem of translation, the need for translators and time for translations, the organizers initially asked the students to divide themselves into Sinhala-speaking and Tamil-speaking groups so that they could discuss issues arising from the plenary discussions between themselves. Several of the students immediately disagreed, saying that they preferred to work in mixed language groups, even though it would cause problems of translating from Sinhala to Tamil and vice versa. So this was the way the arrangement was made. At the end of the weeklong programme, when they were asked to evaluate their experience, several of them voiced the opinion that the most valuable feature of the programme was simply the opportunity they got to meet each other, north, east and south. For this reason more than any other, they were grateful to Rev. Martin Luther King.


The second programme involved members of inter religious groups in the north traveling to the south to meet with counterparts. Initially there was some apprehension on the part of the northerners about going south, especially to Matara in the deep south, which they believed to be a hotbed of Sinhalese nationalism. However they were soon reassured. The first defining moment was in Anuradhapura where the members of the local inter-religious group welcomed their northern counterparts with a betel leaf in the traditional manner of greeting. In addition, they took each member of the northern delegation by hand to a seat, and sat down by their side for the rest of the programme. This act of courtesy and caring did much to bridge any possible divide.

The visit to Matara was even more significant to the visitors from the north. In Matara, it was not only members of civil society who greeted them, but also senior government officials. This included the Government Agent, who is the most senior government official in the district, and the Deputy Inspector General of Police for the entire Southern Province, both of whom attended the closing cultural show and spoke warmly of shared sorrows and future hopes. The police even provided the visitors from the north with a motor cycle escort to go before them, which the visitors from the north likened to VIP treatment. What moved them was the evidence that people in the south were trying very hard to welcome them and make them feel at home.

The presence of government officials at the events in Matara was unexpected. On inquiring I found out that among the inter-religious group in Matara was an official of the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration. When doubts had surfaced within the district administration about the advisability of working in collaboration with an NGO, he had contacted his seniors in the Ministry who had approved of the collaboration. This made all the difference, and convinced the other senior government officials in Matara that they could join the programme of an NGO to reach the hearts and minds of the representatives of civil society of the north who were visiting the south. A civil society that is united north, east and south, and works in partnership with the government to bring reconciliation and trust, will be Sri Lanka’s best answer to the concerns of the international human rights community.

In opening the communication tower in Kokavil in the north, President Mahinda Rajapaksa pledged to give a political solution that the people wanted, and said that such a political solution must come from the hearts of people and not be imposed from outside. The government as a whole needs to be prepared to act in a manner that supports this sentiment of the President. The government can act at the macro level and have a mass impact that surpasses all other organisations. The two examples of small scale and micro-level interventions that brought the hearts and minds of people in the north and south closer together can be replicated, and can be done on a large scale and on the macro-level too, if the government is prepared to give such civil society work its blessings as was done in Matara.