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Transformation of Ethnic Conflict and the
Role of Ecumenical Movements in Sri Lanka

by Jerome De Porres

Sri Lanka, once called Paradise on Earth and the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, now is more often called the Island of Death. Nearly twenty years of tragic conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) have claimed more than 60,000 lives and displaced some 800,000 innocent Sri Lankans. War has become the life of the island.

The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka began in the days when minorities were severely marginalised and deprived of their rights. According to history, following independence from British colonial rule most of the high level government officials and educated elites were from the Tamil minority. The growing involvement of educated Tamils as government officials created fear among the Sinhala community. This Tamil involvement was seen as a threat to Sinhala politicians, leaders, as well as general communities. By exploiting this fear and suspicion, Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake gathered the most powerful segments of the society—the Buddhist monks, teachers, farmers, indigenous doctors (Vedamahaththaya) and working Class—and created a belief among the Sinhala community that they were in serious danger of being marginalised themselves. In order to fulfill the aspirations of the Sinhala majority, Mr. Bandaranayaka introduced the 1957 “Sinhala Only Act” that directly prevented the increase of Tamil officials in the public sector and was discriminatory in many aspects toward the Tamil community. As one of the outcomes of the Act, a person who wanted a promotion in the public sector had to pass through a Sinhala language examination even if he/she was good enough in all other qualifications. This particular act was a major discrimination against the Tamil minorities whose first language was Tamil rather than Sinhalese. There was no longer room for Tamils to practice their own language in the public sector.

Tamil politicians and communities began to protest against the Sinhala Only Act. Even though the Sinhala politicians agreed to resolve the issue, the Sinhala people did not accept the agreement between Bandaranayake and Selvanayagam (a Tamil Parliamentarian from the North) and it was finally destroyed due to pressure from Buddhist monks. This chauvinist environment was created by Sinhala Nationalism and it totally marginalised the entire Tamil community.

This environment of marginalisation continued and Tamil militancy emerged as an alternative to the democratic Tamil politicians who had failed to achieve significant victories toward Tamil rights. In July 1983 LTTE freedom fighters killed an army patrol in Jaffna. Hearing of that incident, Sinhalese mobs in the South went on a two-day rampage killing several thousand Tamils and burning and looting property in Colombo and other southern cities. This marked a point of no return in the growing conflict. The incidence encouraged Tamil youth to fight against the Sinhala government and demand a separate state. Memories of the 1983 incidents increased the commitment of young Tamils to sacrifice their lives for the right of self-determination for future generations. The LTTE movement grew as a strong freedom fighter’s movement because of the oppression and marginalisation by the majority government.

The majority Sinhalese felt severally pressured by the government to resist the young Tamils, who were fighting for their independent homeland. Thousands of youths were killed on both sides. The North and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka were filled with massacres, aerial bombings, destruction, sexual abuses and refugees, while the rest of the Island began facing suicide bombers, arrests under PTA, increasing cost of living, higher unemployment, poor infrastructure, high inflation, bad economy, etc. The country was now inhabited by two nations, each perceiving itself as endangered and the minority demanding its own self-determination to guarantee economic opportunities and preserve cultural identity.

Terrorism holds various meanings for different people on the Island. In reality, it is created by the state to maintain is control. For the minority communities, the terrorists would be seen as the government or government forces.

Conflict is defined by differences of opinion, behavior and attitude. When an opinion, behavior or attitude seriously differs between two or more persons, the conflict begins. It could be interpersonal or intra-personal. It could be between two or more individuals, between different communities or between ethnic groups. A conflict is a collection of incidents which oppress people, marginalise minorities and limit civil rights. When these incidents go beyond the limits, violent conflict begins. Sri Lankan Tamils have faced a vast number of discriminations and it has now turned into a war for a separate state.

In order to transform a conflict the root causes that paved the way to the conflict must be identified and addressed by the communities involved. Trust should be built among these communities. The situation should be transformed into another, more positive situation. When transforming a conflict, the victims are the most important group to be considered. The civilians who lost their property, whose rights were violated and who lost loved ones should be compensated. Basic needs and infrastructure for victims should be provided for.

Peace talks will not give any favourable solution if they do not respond to the real needs and opinions of the people who have suffer the most in the ethnic war. Particularly in Sri Lanka, opinions on the peace talks should be gathered from marginalised people across the Island. While seeking a lasting peace, ground level activities to meet the people’s basic needs should also be done. Even if infrastructure development is taking place in the Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka, such development often does not reach each and every victim who has really been affected by the war. In the name of the High Security Zone (HSZ) policy, vast amounts of land belonging to innocent civilians have been taken over by the government military. HSZ areas cannot be entered by anyone other than by the military forces. Though the ceasefire agreement is in place, thousands of people are still refugees because the lost their lands and houses under the High Security Zone policy. These matters should be discussed and a long term solution found. Otherwise how can a person enjoy real peace if they have lost their land and their homes?

In the peace talks, the case of child soldiers is one of the main concerns of the government, international community, civil society and Tamil people. According to UNICEF there are still thousands of child soldiers in the LTTE. Recruiting child soldiers is also one of the violations of the cease-fire agreement. If these activities are stopped then there is more hope for a lasting peace. If we are really enthusiastic to build a country of peace, these situations must be changed.

Conflict transformation has three major tiers. The government (GOSL) and the freedom fighters (LTTE) are the top level, the Non Governmental Organisations and other social organisations are the middle level and the ground level is made up of the common people. All three levels should be worked at simultaneously. Particularly in Sri Lanka, the GOSL and the LTTE as the top level need to be discussing a long-term solution and work for a lasting peace. NGOs and other humanitarian organisations should be involved in reconciliation, rehabilitation and resettlement of the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). Infrastructure, including basic survival needs, is the first need to be done for war victims.

Dealing with hardliners is also one of the challenges in conflict transformation. Unfortunately Sri Lanka has a sad history of non-corporation within the political parties. Each party that is in power wants to show its power and always restarts the peace talks from the beginning. Not a single politician has tried to think how they can bring forward previous peace talks so that more rapid progress can be made. In a way now the government is trying to build cooperation among the parties, but it remains a challenge to move on with that cooperation.

The Role of Ecumenical Movements in Conflict Transformation

The church and ecumenical movements were not much involved with conflict transformation in Sri Lanka prior to 1994 with the exception of SCM, a few SCM-oriented senior friends and some Christian-oriented social organisations. SCM was the only Christian and youth organisation able to look at the whole issue politically and in a futuristic manner in order to propose, in 1992, a parliamentary committee that would seek solutions to the ethnic issues, The SCM proposal included establishment of a second chamber and a federal system. SCM, in fact, was a founding member of the leading pro-peace movement in the seventies called the Movement for Interracial Justice and Equality. During 1985 and 1994, due to the war, a lot of churches were destroyed, priests were killed and congregations displaced. Therefore the leaders of the churches were compelled to work for their congregations for resettlement and to bring peace. Churches and ecumenical movements related to the churches began to be involved in a great way in peacemaking and conflict transformation with the space given by the government beginning in 1994. It was also fortunate that Christianity is the only faith where Sinhalese and Tamils can meet together for one common purpose. Therefore it was a great opportunity for developing anew the peace and reconciliation among the people that was destroyed by the war. Through the churches the peace movement spread among the whole community. Churches and the ecumenical movements were the best way to transform the conflict situation to a peaceful situation among the communities.

Particularly in Sri Lanka, The SCM was one of the great starting points in peacemaking in Sri Lanka. The SCM believes that as the followers of Jesus Christ, we cannot discriminate or marginalise people and as a movement and individuals we decided to become deeply involved in the issues of the rights of the people. The SCM statement on the ethnic issue in 1976 clearly indicates this. The SCM always stands for minority rights and against all forms of discrimination again the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. It works toward a pluralistic society through all its programmes and activities. This includes exposure visits to the north and east, bringing students from the north and east to visit groups in the south, visits of southern students to the north and east, lobbing and pressure to church leaders to address the war situation, and working with other people’s movements on human rights. As the SCM movement believes that discrimination in language is one of the root causes of the conflict, they have tried to encourage the minorities to practice their own language in their activities. From the beginning the SCM, while standing for minority rights, has also been involved in teaching peace and reconciliation among the youth of both Sinhalese and Tamil communities and has brought them into a platform where they could live peacefully and in harmony.

Today, as a result of much hard work of the SCM and its friendly organisations and individuals, the ecumenical movement clearly stands with the devolution of power for a federal system, fulfillment of the rights of Tamils, good governance and constitutional changes. They also stand against the laws and legislations which are truly discriminating against the Tamil minorities, such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

There are also a vast number of ecumenical movements which are closely working for conflict transformation. But only a few of them are really willing and enthusiastic to work with the real needs of the victims. Rehabilitation and resettlement of the refugees is one of the main tasks of the ecumenical movement in Sri Lanka. Particularly in the north and eastern provinces, in order to develop a strong foundation for peace, resettlement, vocational training must be encouraged. Churches and the ecumenical movements take care of war victims and infrastructure development as well. Since the early nineties, the churches were silent, but now they are much involved in human rights activism and good governance. But still they are weak in their stand because the churches are now becoming institutions and they are not always seriously considering the real needs of the people who are most affected by this ethnic crisis.

For a lasting peace the issues of plantation workers too should be considered. Ignoring the plantation workers does not give any kind of long-term solution for a peaceful country. Though discussions and exchanges are being held between the LTTE and upcountry politicians, there is not any sort of favourable output yet.

Finally, a lasting peace in Sri Lanka can be achieved if people-to-people dialogue and cooperation among the political parties is done in an effective manner. The role of the ecumenical movement should be more effective and the work they do should be carried on until every person can experience a truly peaceful society.

“Forgiveness never changes the past, But it enlarges the future”