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5 June 2001

Sri Lanka's people long for peace
by Bernt Jonsson

The World Council of Churches (WCC) together with the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) has long been involved in promoting efforts for peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Since conflict there escalated in mid-1983, the two ecumenical organisations have organised consultations and visits to review the situation and have called on their member churches to lobby and advocate with their respective governments to bring an end to the conflict. Staff have also undertaken regular visits to keep the ecumenical constituency updated on the situation.

Both organisations have urged the parties to the conflict to seek a negotiated settlement. Human rights violations by the Sri Lanka security forces and by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been brought to the attention of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). In response to WCC calls, partner churches and related agencies have provided humanitarian relief assistance to internally displaced people and to refugees from Sri Lanka in Tamil Nadu, India.

More recently, the WCC has facilitated exchange visits between representatives of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka and the Christian Council of Norway to explore ways to mobilise support in the country and abroad for a Norwegian peace initiative in Sri Lanka.

The NCC-Sri Lanka and churches in the country have consistently endeavoured to build relations with the Buddhist clergy in order to promote peace and reconciliation. NCC-Sri Lanka representatives have been in contact with government officials and have visited Jaffna on several occasions to meet with the LTTE in an effort to find an amicable solution to the ethnic conflict.

Bernt Jonsson, editor-in-chief of the Swedish ecumenical periodical Sändaren, accompanied the general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, on a recent visit to Sri Lanka, and wrote the following feature article about the country's 18-year-long civil conflict.

"A political solution is necessary and both sides have to give in. We hope and pray for peace. And the military would be the first to accept it!" Colonel Samaraweera Mahesh is commenting on Sri Lanka's civil war. Stationed at Vavuniya military camp, that borders the southernmost past of the area controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), he admits that the long road and railway to the coast are extremely vulnerable after surprising guerrilla successes in 1999. Even though the ground is heavily mined - a serious threat to civilians if they want to cross the border on their own - the Tigers are only a kilometre away, and could cut off both the road and the railway.

"Last week I lost one of my men in spite of the LTTE ceasefire. In general though, they keep their promise and we keep a low profile too. But they're training for new battles and so are we," says the colonel, who hopes current Norwegian efforts to jump-start peace negotiations will succeed. Negotiations between the government and the guerrillas have failed before, however.

Colonel Mahesh's assessment of the situation is contradicted by other stories about bombing of LTTE areas in spite of the unilateral ceasefire that has lasted more than three months. And reference to improved conditions for the civilian population on both sides is more talk than reality so far. The armed conflict continues, if at a low level.

Brutality and mistrust
After more than 400 years of Portuguese, Dutch and then British colonial rule, Ceylon was granted independence in 1948 in the aftermath of India's liberation, without going through the trauma of a war of independence. The British were fed up with their role as colonisers. The local political elite was satisfied, literacy was high, the electorate was considered sophisticated, and per capita GDP was one of the highest in Asia.

Today, after 18 years of armed conflict between Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese population and the minority Tamils, the situation is very different. The nation's contemporary history has been marked by brutality and deep distrust between the various ethnic groups. Almost 80 000 people have been killed (including two presidents and a number of top politicians), hundreds of thousands wounded, nearly one million people internally displaced and several hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans are now refugees abroad. The Sinhalese, making up 70% of the population of almost 20 million, are mainly Buddhists while the Tamils, constituting 15% of the population, are mainly Hindus. Muslims (7-8%) are seen as a third group with a special identity. Christians (7-8%) are found among both Sinhalese and Tamils.

In spite of the smooth transition to independence, almost one million of Ceylon's Tamils were deprived of their citizenship and voting rights already in 1948. The British had imported them from India during the nineteenth century to work on the tea, coffee and rubber plantations. In 1956, in response to pressure from the Buddhist sangha, the Sinhala Only Act declared Sinhala as the national language and Buddhism as the religion of the people. This eventually triggered off the spiral of violence, and later efforts to repair the damage failed due to internal power struggles on the Sinhalese side. In 1970 the country's name was changed to Sri Lanka.

Today 20% of the nation's budget goes on military expenditure, average income levels are approaching the lowest in Asia, and war fatigue is widespread. Apart from the few who are making money out of the conflict, everyone yearns for peace... but often on their own terms.

Peace negotiations
"By persuading other countries to define the LTTE as a terrorist organisation, the government is trying to reach a better bargaining position," asserts a prominent Vavuniya civilian who wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Norwegian diplomat Eric Solheim thinks the Tamil Tigers are strong. "They had 40 000 government troops trapped in Jaffna in 1999, but Israel and Pakistan provided the army with new weapons and the LTTE had to stop its offensive. Now they have recaptured many villages and, in November 2000, captured Elephant Pass, a strategic post on the Jaffna peninsula. Neither side can win by military means, so the international community is trying to push both parties to the negotiations table."

Solheim has been shuttling back and forth between the parties in order to get the peace negotiations on track. Buddhist extremists have demonstrated outside the Norwegian embassy in Colombo, but at the same time the process inspires great hopes, and some scepticism. In the opinion of a Jaffna peace and goodwill committee composed of Christians, Hindus and other prominent civilians, things are moving too slowly.

In the absence of a political structure, the committee transmits the people's needs and grievances to the military. The ruins in the city centre are not the only problem. Heavily mined fields, especially tempting and dangerous for children, are another. However, the people are resilient and determined to continue their daily pursuits.

Solheim helped persuade the LTTE to declare the unilateral ceasefire as a confidence-building measure paving the way for negotiations. It has thrice been prolonged for a month. Human rights organisations in Colombo are criticising the government for dragging its feet on easing the sanctions that hurt people in the LTTE areas. The organisations themselves are then accused of supporting the guerrillas. Restrictions concern both economic activities like sea fishing, and deliveries of medicine and food.

Internally displaced people
So many internally displaced people are living in government refugee camps in Vavuniya that the area's usual population of 15,000 has swelled to 80,000. In one camp, Bastiyapillar Kamalambihi tells us her story.

We are standing in a large hangar-like building with two small doors and no windows. The hangar is almost totally dark and is lit only a couple of hours early in the afternoon. On each side of a two-metre aisle, roughly 30 families occupy a 10x10-foot space each separated by heavy cloth "walls", and the corrugated iron roof is 10-15 metres up. Beside the hangar are other, even more basic, family shelters.

Kamalambihi's story is a typical one. She had to leave her home village and farm after seven years of war and move to Jaffna with her husband and their two children. Four years later they were forced to leave Jaffna, moved again after two years, and finally arrived in Vavuniya four years ago.

"We want to return to our native village even if we have to build everything up from scratch. But we don't dare to return until there is peace. If we move back now, our 18-year-old son will be forced to become a soldier for the LTTE or the government. We don't want to fight, we don't want him to take up arms."

Kamalambihi's husband is working as a miller in order to add to the meagre food rations the IDPs receive from the government. To get a job, if only for a season, is a privilege. "The rice we receive from the government is bad and they've cut down the ration from 12 to 9 kilos," the group of women complains. "And please write that we have too little water. We can never take a bath!" That is a health hazard in the hot and humid climate, and diseases flourish.

In another camp we hear about young war widows who prostitute themselves so as to be able to feed their children. And about women soldiers in both the army and the guerrilla forces who are victims of rape and other grave sexual violations by their male colleagues.

Ghassem Fardanesh, the UNHCR representative in Vavuniya, shows us a well-planned resettlement camp with private and common areas, water, latrines, a school and plots for small vegetable gardens. "Our role has been basic planning and providing some basic resources. Then the internally displaced persons do the rest by themselves", he says proudly.

There are now 200 families in this village-style camp. We see women and children at the two wells. The men are invisible; some may have found work in Vavuniya. Flowers have been planted in front of the houses. In the back are small vegetable gardens. There is an air of peace over this temporary village only one kilometre from the guerrilla zone, but very far from the crowded misery of the other refugee camps.

Peace a must
Sri Lanka today is a deeply divided nation whose people long for peace. Internal divisions exist within almost all the groups as well as between them: between militant nationalist Buddhists and Buddhists committed to non-violence; between the LTTE and the Muslim population victimised by guerrilla violations; between various Tamil political groups; between militant Buddhists and Sinhalese Christians, seen by the former as traitors; and between President Chandrika Kumaratunga - who was elected on a peace platform and whose father was assassinated while he was president - and the more militant prime minister. There are ethnic tensions even within and between the churches, and the Christian Council of Sri Lanka has sometimes been accused of being too Tamil-oriented.

In spite of all this, there is now a cautiously dawning hope for change, a growing insight that a peaceful solution is needed, says the Roman Catholic bishop of Kandy, Dr V. Fernando. "The sufferings of the people in the North and the devastating effects on the economy in the South make people realise that peace is a must. There are still pockets of resistance among Sinhalese Buddhists, who want to preserve the purity of Buddhism at any price. But most of the people put their hope in a breakthrough. An end to the war, though, is not enough. All citizens must have the same human rights. It is important to change the constitution in order to decentralise power from Colombo as much as possible. In principle the president is on the right track," he concludes.

Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010)
At the Eighth Assembly of the WCC in Harare, Zimbabwe, delegates representing more than 300 WCC member churches brought the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV) into being. The Assembly declared that on issues of non-violence and reconciliation, the WCC should "work strategically with the churches... to create a culture of non-violence". The Decade, which was launched world-wide in February 2001, will build on already existing initiatives around the world, and offer a forum for sharing experiences and establishing relationships so as to learn from one another.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.