Local heritage-based peacebuilding model for Lanka vital | Sunday Observer
We need it, not the UN or the West

Local heritage-based peacebuilding model for Lanka vital

7 March, 2021
The humanitarian mission (Pic: Rukmal Gamage)
The humanitarian mission (Pic: Rukmal Gamage)

Although the history of peacemaking is as old as the history of conflict which has gripped man, the term ‘peacebuilding’ which is a buzzword in Western NGOs, was first created in 1975 by Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung. It appeared first in his pioneering work “Three Approaches to Peace: Peacekeeping, Peacemaking and Peacebuilding.”

In this approach, he attempted to systemise the route of achieving a lasting peace within societies. It is because of Galtung that we have universities across the world teaching the subject of ‘Peace and conflict.’ Many of these universities are, however, in modern Western nations which established themselves upon the bones of old civilisations, destroying lives, cultures and heritage and still have no qualms about preaching justice and equality to others in this age where the cloak of power seems to coexist with an unfathomable and non-rational self-righteousness.

Having covered Sri Lanka’s peace process from 2002 to 2005 as a journalist for the Sunday Observer and as correspondent for several South Asian publications, interacting with those involved in Sri Lanka’s 30-year old battle against terrorism and having worked in the peace building training with foreign and local stakeholders and independently researching into post-conflict reconciliation, a conclusion I have arrived at alongside my personal journey towards spirituality, is that a subject, such as peace building cannot be learnt or taught in classrooms or training sessions.


In similar vein, I have learnt that accountability of a battle in the country cannot be judged by outsiders who have little emotional link with civilisations, such as Sri Lanka, who themselves have waged and still wage war and use their own justifications to do so and are not held ‘accountable.’

Human prejudice, love, compassion, hate and forgiveness are a vast paradoxical tapestry that exists in the heart of every saint and every terrorist and anyone falling between these two categories. Hence, let me approach this topic from a human dimension and not a political one, having no political affiliation or agendas and having maintained an impartial objectivity in writings on matters of war and peace and every other matter.

Historically, the word ‘Sinhala civilisation’ was used to collectively encompass anyone who arrived in the land from any location. Historians have written on how, for example, the Muslim traders who arrived in Sri Lanka and decided to settle here became entrenched in this civilisation and were patrons of Buddhism; one of the healthiest sciences for the mind.

However, for the concept of a Sinhala civilisation to work, especially, in the neo-liberal context, it is essential that Buddhism is put into practice in every sphere of public policy and its fruits would be self evident. Sri Lanka could have used the past 12 years to usher in a peace building model unattached to the Western apron strings. Sri Lanka needs to showcase to its people and the world the examples where at the height of the battle against terrorism, security officials had won the trust of the Tamil people even at the risk of death by the LTTE.

Sri Lanka’s Security Forces are one of the most disciplined in the world. We did not have an army running amok raping women and creating havoc when they took over Jaffna in 1995 or in the last phase of the battle against terrorism in 2009. Any Northern Tamil citizen would agree this is so although this image was falsely created by outsiders with vested interest. We have lacked a coherent strategy to counter this.

LTTE’s ruse

The LTTE wanted errors in judgment in attacks, such as air raids. This is why they surrounded their opulent headquarters with civilians in shacks right round– they did this to the end - firing from close to orphanages and portraying the resultant attacks as those by the Security Forces to kill civilians.

The LTTE was shooting at its own people in the last phase of the battle against terrorism. But the Security Forces were popular with the Northern people who were escaping the LTTE held areas during the last phase of the battle with nothing but the clothes on their back and walking for miles without water or food.

I recall listening to the comments of a Colombo-based Tamil dentist who prior to 2009 May was sentimentally pro-LTTE although he had never visited the North, but changed his views soon after a visit to refugee camps. Having listened to his side of the argument every time I visited him in his professional capacity, I was aghast when I heard his views a few months later. Soon after the battle against terrorism, he had been on a voluntary medical camp for the refugees who had arrived from LTTE areas. Every story he had heard from the Tamil people was critical of the LTTE. However, he was annoyed that the foreign media was painting a different picture.

Objectivity is a key to this kind of situations. An objective analysis tells us that Buddhism has to be put into practice to use the concept of loving kindness as a base of a Sri Lanka’s model of peace building to ensure that all its citizens inculcate in their hearts a sense of belonging to the nation and will not want to let it down in the eyes of the world. The Tamils, especially prior to the riots which began in the 1950s, possessed an inherent quality of staunch loyalty to the motherland.

Popularity of security personnel

Even at the height of the battle against terrorism, there have been Commanders who were so popular with the people of the North that they were protected by them. A now retired Major General known for his discipline and humanity in an interview revealed how a poosari protected his camp through prayers in gratitude for him for re-building a Hindu temple destroyed in the battle. Incidentally, the camp had been saved despite many attacks.

We are today being preached to by countries whose police officers snap necks of the people in broad daylight on account of their colour, but have no qualms about preaching human rights to countries, such as Sri Lanka whose human rights were first violated to the highest level possible by Western invaders. However, although we are still paying for the divide and rule policy the British instituted here, we cannot blame either the Colonisers or the West for all our problems. We have had 73 years to build our nation the way we want and prevent pettiness and short sightedness to dominate our psyche.

We failed to quell as immediately as we could the anti-Tamil riots such as those of 1956 and 1958, 1977, to prevent the burning of the Jaffna Public Library of 1981 and the 1983 black July riots. If we had prevented these calamities, we could have changed the course of Sri Lanka’s history by not allowing an uneducated, power hungry people, such as Velupillai Prabhakaran to turn Tamil citizens into cogs of war machinery. The country needs to welcome unbiased, objective, constructive analyses and criticisms by its citizens. Freedom of expression has to be safeguarded so that policy makers could understand different dimensions of looking at a problem and engage in consultation with the people.

‘Peace careerists’

Peacebuilding is an everyday phenomenon; everyone is party to it. It is not the responsibility of a Government alone although a wise government can do much for assisting those who want to promote national reconciliation. For a genuine reconciliation and peacebuilding, the first step could be that we separate it from ‘peace careerists’ who dot the INGO landscape where a significant number of them is emotionally disconnected with their work. Most of them are there in elitist organisations for the mere earning of money out of peacebuilding and human rights which are lucrative industries for the West, as is the so-called charities for Africa, one of the richest places in the planet portrayed as poor to enable the West to exploit it.

In a battle, human beings die. Those who joined either the Security Forces or the LTTE were not personal enemies of each other. We have not used this reality as strongly as we could have, to bring out to public domain the humane stories emerged in the battle. Below is one such case study.

It is a narrative of a Major. He was from Polonnaruwa and his family, kith and kin had suffered inordinately at the hands of the LTTE, who used to invade their village in the night and kill on sight. The LTTE was known for chopping people to death in border villages. Despite this, the youth, in his 30s, had no hate in his heart, more of a trained trait alongside being from a practising Buddhist family. He was doing an MA in peace studies and was interested in sharing his narrative with me.

Badly hurt

He is hereby quoted verbatim: “I will tell you a story. Stories, such as this, people won’t get to hear. There are many accounts, such as this. The incident occurred around 2008, when I was leading my men and the fighting was bad. We knew there were women cadres who were shooting at us. Somehow, after some time, the shooting from their side ceased. We thought there was no one living. Suddenly, we saw a young woman struggling to reach up to her neck. Her gun was not with her. I instructed my men not to shoot. She was wounded. My conscience told me a wounded person without a weapon should not be shot. She was badly hurt.

I could see she feared us and therefore, struggling to reach for the cyanide round her neck. I appealed her not to do so and not to harm me as I wanted to give her first aid to stem her bleeding so that she could hold on until her people found her. She was weak. As she collapsed, I gave her water and bandaged her arm and kept some water and other provisions with her. We waited for a while and left as we heard the rebels approach. I still think of that incident. I hope she had survived the battle and that she is leading a normal life now.”

How many such stories may there be in the minds of youth who became either members of the Security Forces or the LTTE. The Government should look for laying a platform for such voices to be heard to bring forth a sense of collective opportunity for reconciliation.

Peacebuilding should be inculcated as the daily responsibility and duty of the people. It is the responsibility of Government workers, educators, scholars, entrepreneurs, bankers, businessmen, intellectuals, writers, meditators, those given to spirituality, poets, artistes, environmentalists – everyone - and need to be accomplished maintaining freedom of mental space so that it is not clouded with Western influence or brainwashing. One of the strongest models of peacebuilding we can use is through local tourism. We can do this through Buddhist temples and Hindu kovils and other diverse links. Hearts and minds are changed through human interaction.

Among my dozens of interviews tracking how people change their views, an interesting one is of a now Colombo-based lawyer in his late 40s, who first came to Colombo, 20 years ago trembling in fear on account of LTTE brainwashing, expecting not to make a single Sinhalese friend. Today, many of his clients are Sinhalese.

He is working on his own volition to bring communities together, closely studying Sinhalese and Tamil cultural commonalities and implementing holistic initiatives. He is also countering the one sided view of the Tamil diaspora.

Unfortunately, we are not producing in our rote learning, ethnic, religion and social class divided education framework people who are thinkers. What we are producing mostly are youth who blindly crave to leave the country for ‘foreign education’ and become beholden to Western views without being able to decipher them carefully. The first casualty of Sri Lanka’s tuition and exam obsessed education sector is its heritage. A peacebuilding, reconciliation and human rights model built outside its heritage is akin to constructing a building with a weak foundation.

Sri Lanka has an ample opportunity to build confidence in a heritage integrated model for peace and human rights. Such a heritage model should give due recognition to Tamil heritage and culture within a Sinhala Buddhist heritage framework. No Sinhalese who is a Buddhist should be made to feel like a communalist or racist for wanting to assert their Sinhala- Buddhist identity.

Sri Lanka needs to build a genuinely rooted civil society. Now, we have a Colombo dominated elite, top down approach based INGO and NGO sector. Having worked in this sector, the writer is aware that although there are capable and genuine people in the industry and some organisations are doing valuable work, there are others who are consciously or subconsciously pawns of global power-based machinations that use structures set up for international unity and progress for the opposite purpose.

Naseby’s report

The unbiased report by Michael Wolfgang Laurence Morris better known as Baron Naseby on Sri Lanka’s last stage of the battle against terrorism and relating to the number of civilians killed should be used as needed to strengthen awareness in Sri Lanka and internationally.

Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) that was initiated in May 2010, a year after the battle, by the then Government and incorporating those who were notably independent can be capitalised upon and many of its recommendations, which are still relevant followed up on.

There is a need to use the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission as a body that could be in local and international limelight in promoting human rights in Sri Lanka and supporting peacebuilding strategies.

We as a nation focus on the human right of language access. Although English can be used as a link language, Tamil is an official language as per the Constitution of Sri Lanka and should be respected in every aspect.

It is important that we give an opportunity to Muslims chased at gunpoint by the LTTE from the North to narrate their stories so that former LTTE cadres could understand the sorrow and hardship they had earlier inflicted on these people. The Sinhalese of border villages, who used to sleep in the night in adjoining wilderness to avoid being attacked by the LTTE could be given a chance to speak to former LTTE cadres about what they went through. The possibility of the Security Forces sharing their side of the story could be beneficial for creating lasting bonds with Tamil citizens.

Sri Lanka needs to initiate understanding with its citizens because we need it and not the UN or the West. Such an understanding is essential for us to ease out of the past and move to the future, as a sovereign, independent nation that respects the considerations of all of its citizens, who through unity and a strong patriotic sense contributes to creating a robust economy.